Israeli Researchers Find that Touching a Furry Social Robot Reduces Pain and Increases Happiness

And to the woman He said, “I will make most severe Your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

The people of Japan have for decades been crazy about robots. Already in 1995, of the 700,000 industrial robots that were used for manufacturing in the world, 500,000 of them were in Japan, which wants robotics in the 21st century to be what automobiles were in the 20th century. 

Robots are also seen as a solution to Japan’s shrinking workforce and declining birth rate. Since then, humanoid robots are replacing hotel and healthcare staff, and social robots that provide companionship for the elderly have been added.  

A furry robot named PARO (an odd acronym for Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer) that looks like a baby seal was invented in 2003 by Takanori Shibata, an engineer at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. Now in its eighth generation and used in Japan and throughout Western Europe, PARO has tactile, light, audition, temperature and posture sensors with which it can perceive people and its environment. 

Outfitted with dual 32-bit processors, three microphones, 12 tactile sensors covering its fur, touch-sensitive whiskers and a delicate system of motors and actuators that silently move its limbs and body, the robot responds to petting by moving its tail and opening and closing its eyes. Shibata designed it to actively seek out eye contact, respond to touch, cuddle with people, remember faces and learn actions that generate a favorable reaction. It doesn’t have to take a nap, doesn’t have to be fed and doesn’t die.

The furry seal robot, which makes seal-like noises and moves its head and flippers in response to being touched and spoken to, is said to have a calming effect on and elicit emotional responses in autistic children and hospital and nursing home – and even dementia patients – similar to animal-assisted therapy except using robots. 

But now, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba have found an important additional benefit from PARO: A one-time, short session with it actually reduced pain, increased happiness and reduced oxytocin levels. 

Human-to-human contact has been found to bolster mood and reduce pain in several previous studies. But what if regular human-to-human contact is not an option, as is the case these days, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? And could a replacement be found for addictive opioid medications whose overdoses have caused many deaths, especially in the US?

Could a furry social robot induce similar effects? Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek of BGU’s Department of Physical Therapy and her team set out to find out. Their findings were just published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Levy-Tzedek and her team discovered that a one-time interaction with PARO, which lasted less than an hour, did indeed improve mood and reduced both mild and severe induced pain. When participants touched PARO, they experienced greater pain reduction than when it was simply present in the room with them.

Surprisingly, they also discovered lower levels of oxytocin in those who interacted with PARO than in the control group participants, who did not meet PARO at all. High oxytocin levels have been found in mothers playing with their children and between romantic partners, and has sometimes been called the “love hormone,” so a lower level of oxytocin is surprising. But more recent studies have shown that excluding such close relationships, oxytocin production is an indicator of stress and therefore a reduction could indicate relaxation.

“These findings offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being, which are particularly needed at this time, when social distancing is a crucial factor in public health,” declared Levy-Tzedek.

In their article, which was titled “Touching the social robot PARO reduces pain perception and salivary oxytocin levels,” the BGU team  

Noted that “no studies have so far tested the effect of human-robot emotional touch on experimentally induced pain ratings, on mood and on oxytocin levels in healthy young adults” with a mean age of 25. They assessed the effect of touching the robot PARO on pain perception, on mood and on salivary oxytocin levels, in 83 young adults. Twenty of the volunteers who did not interact with PARO served as a control group. 

The researchers found that there was a decrease in pain ratings and in oxytocin levels and an increase in happiness ratings compared to baseline only in the PARO group. The Touch condition yielded a larger decrease in pain ratings compared to No-Touch.