By Sy Mukherjee
October 12, 2018

An adorable robot seal that’s meant to help elderly people with dementia is getting some serious recognition—or at least its creator, Japanese scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer Takanori Shibata, is.

Shibata has been awarded the 2018 Ryman Prize—an international scientific award worth $250,000 and is meant to honor entrepreneurs who focus on ways to improve the lives of the elderly—for his decades of work in robotics and AI for that very purpose. Shibata’s signature creation is the PARO robot; the device, which is shaped like a seriously adorable baby seal (I highly recommend checking out some videos of PARO in action for a bit of Friday decompression), is a therapy bot that’s been commercially available since 2005.

Since then, PARO has become a relatively common sigh at long-term care facilities for dementia patients. In many ways, it’s a digital version of animal/pet therapy, which provides emotional support to patients. Its various cameras, sensors, artificial intelligence capabilities, and motors allow it to respond to petting and react to patients’ calls and commands. Clinical studies have suggested it’s effective in improving mood, reducing anxiety, boosting sleep, and reducing pain perception in patients who use it.

“I set out to find a way to use technology as an alternative drug-free therapy to ease the suffering of patients with dementia,” said Shibata when accepting the Ryman Prize. “The health challenges faced by older people are enormous and growing but technology is changing just as quickly. We’ve proved that this is possible, and that AI has huge potential for the future.”

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