One can say that robotic therapy is an emerging field because robots aiding the recovery process aren’t an often seen sight yet. However, the idea seems pretty promising particularly because we can make robots specifically suited for the task at hand.
As far as I'm aware, there are two directions in robotic therapy. The first direction is to make robots that could be used the same way animals are used in animal therapy. The second direction is to design robots specifically tailored for specific treatments that can then be used by qualified doctors as tools.
While it is proven that animal therapy is successful, there are places and situations where it can't be used. It doesn't matter how well trained animals are they still can be hard to predict at some situations. Also issues regarding hygiene, allergies and others can arise.
PARO is a robotic baby-seal designed specifically to be used in robotic therapy. The design started in 1993 but it was shown to general public in year 2001. The robot responds to petting and can express different moods.
It is said that a baby-seal rather than a dog or a cat was chosen as a prototype because people are not familiar with these animals. This means that people don't have an opinion on how a baby seal should act or feel like. In case of familiar animals, people can be disappointed when they discover that the robot does not feel like a real thing.
Although people probably have seen baby seals on TV they are not familiar with the way they act. So, when encountering a robotic one no prejudice can disrupt the feeling of something cute, fuzzy and alive if the level of artificial intelligence is high enough.It is proven that this approach works good enough. When people encounter the PARO they tend to pet it, talk with it and do other things they would normally do if a live animal was presented to them. This way the animal therapy can be applied without the negative issues associated with it.
Also, I'd like to mention that every PARO is hand-made. The manufacturer states that every one of them has a different face. When called repeatedly in one name they will learn to respond to it. This way every PARO is slightly different than others.
Cosmobot is used for entirely different approach on robotic therapy. In this case robot is not used to substitute an animal. Cosmobot is more like a tool in hands of a doctor. Cosmobot, just like PARO, was designed with therapy in mind.
It is intended to be used by doctors to enhance the therapy of developmentally disabled children aged 5-12 years. It is said that by using a robot the therapy can be made more interesting for a child. This way long term success and achievement of therapy goals is more likely.
One more thing should be noted. CosmoBot is made in a way that enables data collection about the performance of the child. This way the therapist can evaluate how successful the therapy is.
Besides these specifically designed robots, there are some successful attempts to use other robots for therapy purposes. This time the idea is the same as in PARO's case. Robots such as Sony's AIBO or a robotic cat - NeCoRo is tested to be used this way.
Maybe other robots such as WowWee's “alive cub” series' robots that mimic animals can also be used this way. In my opinion, though, some research should be carried out to find out what level of artificial intelligence is needed for a therapy to be successful.
On one hand, a robotic therapy seems like a good idea. Now people that are unable to fully take care of a pet can enjoy the benefits of owning one. Also, robots can be used in environments where pets should not be allowed such as hospitals.
On the other hand, the idea of people bonding emotionally with robots can seem a bit disturbing. Science fiction long ago predicted the problems that could emerge in such cases. However, don't say that you don't have a nickname for your car. Or maybe I'm the only weirdo out there?