We are in the midst of a demographic phenomenon known as the graying of society. In more affluent countries, the population is aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2060. By 2030, 20% of the U.S. population will be over 65 years old. Some other countries, including Italy, Germany, and Japan, are already at this mark.

“People are realizing we are unprepared to have such a broad percentage of our society be comprised of elders,” says Kelly Joyce, a sociologist at Drexel University (right. Credit: Teresa Longo and Steve Otto.). “And it’s not just that people over 65 are increasing, it’s also that the oldest old, those over 85, are increasing. While it is exciting that people are living longer, our society isn’t set up to care for all these people.” This demographic shift, along with a shortage of health care personnel, has led to increasing demand for new technologies that can assist the elderly in their daily lives. One result is a growing menagerie of robotic pets designed to address the companionship needs of older adults. “Robotic pets are part of a continuum of robots that people are working with around aging, especially with elders who have dementia,” says Joyce.

There are a few models of robotic pets available, most of which come from Japan. The most well-known and well-researched of these offerings is PARO (short for “personal robot” in Japanese), a soft seal robot developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. With its white fur and large puppy-dog eyes, PARO was specifically designed for therapeutic uses with the elderly.

“PARO’s inventor, Takanori Shibata, was interested in coming up with a robot that would address the needs of senior citizens, particularly those who were in a depressive cocoon in nursing homes,” says Jennifer Robertson, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “He thought that this robot with soft fur would provoke conversation among people with senile dementia and depression.” PARO looks like a baby harp seal. It has programmable behavior and a wide array of sensors and actuators that allow it to react and respond to sounds and touch.