A Healthy Little Robot
Sure, pets are cute and seem to improve human health. But there are some places where they can't live, like nursing homes. So can a robot pet provoke the same reactions?
Yes, according to a few preliminary studies--but not to the same degree. "I thought it was kind of silly when we started looking into it, " says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University's veterinary school. "But there's something going on there." In a recent study at the University of Missouri-Columbia, for example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped among adults who, for several minutes, petted AIBO, Sony's dog-shaped robot that responds when stroked, chases a ball, and perks up when it hears a familiar voice. That's the same reaction live dogs get. Unlike real dogs, though, AIBO didn't prompt increases in "good" body chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.
When Purdue psychologist Gail Melson gave AIBO to children ages 7 to 15 for a few play periods, 70 percent felt the robot could be a good companion, like a pet. Beck sent AIBO to elderly residents in independent living facilities for six weeks and subsequently found they were less depressed and lonely. Some reported they got out of their chairs more often to play with the robot, increasing their exercise. And with robots, there's no cleaning up afterward.
This story appears in the December 12, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.