Virtual pet, actual therapy

Engineer Takanori Shibata, with his creation Luka, in Marbella.
Engineer Takanori Shibata, with his creation Luka, in Marbella. / Josele
  • A Japanese engineer has created a baby seal with artificial intelligence, which is being used to treat Alzheimer's and other illnesses

Luka lets you touch him, looks at the person who is holding him in their arms to encourage them to keep their hand on his back and complains if they stop stroking him. He answers to Luka, but if somebody calls him by a different name he understands that it has changed and responds to that one, too. However, Luka is much more than a pet. For almost five years he has been used as a type of therapy for patients suffering from Alzheimer's, senile dementia and other illnesses.

Despite his fluffy appearance, which creates an irresistable urge to stroke him, Luka is not the baby seal he appears to be. He is a robot, the product of an artificial intelligence laboratory, and was created by Japanese engineer Takanori Shibata, who invented him for therapeutic purposes.

After four years during which his invention has been used in around 30 countries, including the USA, the UK, France and Denmark, Shibata says there is plenty of evidence that it is effective.

In all these countries, doctors are now prescribing it as part of treatment for their patients. About 6,000 have been sold all around the world so far and they cost nearly 5,000 euros each.

This week, Shibata presented his creation at CK Marbella, a private home for the elderly, to an audience of around 100 professionals from the sector.

Inspired by animal therapy

For nearly an hour, this inventor explained the psychological, physiological and social effects provided by Luka, and said it had been inspired by the many successful experiences in animal therapy. It reduces stress, encourages interaction, improves mood and facilitates communication.

He said that when it was used with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, it helped to reduce the pain and nausea, and in patients with Parkinsons it enabled them to control the shaking.

Shibata also said it has been used effectively with autistic patients, others with cerebral paralysis and stroke victims who had lost vital functions.

Tactile contact with the robot, who is half a metre long and weighs two kilos, shows how far the technique in imitating textures has advanced. Although the engineer explains that the fur has been constructed with acrylic and silver particles, it is difficult to believe that it is not real.

However, there are no organs inside, just tactile sensors which run through the whole body structure, temperature sensors, microphones and voice sensors.

The robotic seal has been designed in minute detail to make sure it is totally realistic. Even the charger which feeds the battery, which has a useful life of ten years, looks just like a baby's dummy.