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Robot seal tested for stress relief on pretend Mars mission
Anything to avoid interacting with Elon Musk
We must have all heard about "emotional support animals" by now – pets that provide comfort to people with psychiatric disabilities. They're also used as an excuse to try to take peacocks and more recently boa constrictors on airplanes.
These chancers should take a leaf from the book of The Mars Society, a nonprofit that advocates for the human settlement of the Red Planet, and has been testing something a little less unpredictable – a robotic, AI-powered baby harp seal invented in Japan.
Paro, as the robot is named, first appeared as far back as 2001 and was designed to calm hospital and nursing home patients.
The robot has since been used therapeutically with dementia patients and has also been shown to have beneficial effects on children with autism.
It's powered by two 32-bit processors, three microphones, 12 tactile sensors covering most of its fur, touch-sensitive whiskers, and a system of motors that silently moves its parts, letting it react to a patient's touches and voice.
Approved for healthcare settings in a variety of countries, Paro costs about $6,000 per unit and holds a Guinness World Record for "most therapeutic" robot.
The thinking is that a hypothetical mission to the planet would take years under very difficult circumstances – cramped quarters, closed environments and so on – leading to heightened stress of the astronauts. What if Paro could be sent along on such a mission to alleviate that?
According to the Asia News Network, The Mars Society has been engaged in a simulated Mars mission in the US state of Utah since November, and Paro was along for the ride.
The crew of six women were divided into two, one group spending time with the robot and the other having no contact. Their pulse and heart rates were measured and will be analyzed along with their journals in cooperation with NASA to see if Paro had any effect on stress.
"These tests are the first step," said the robot's inventor, Dr Takanori Shibata. "We want to consider developing [Paro] for applications in space."
- The balmy equator of Mars looks rich in opal-bound water
- China's Mars rover hibernates for a scarily long time
- Perseverance rover drops off first sample tube on surface of Mars
- NASA retires Mars InSight mission after it enters 'dead bus' condition
Mars has been a location of interest for possible human landings for decades. SpaceX boss Elon Musk is certain that colonizing and terraforming the planet is humanity's only hope, and yet a crewed mission would be extraordinarily challenging.
The travel time would be at least nine months under the most favorable conditions due to the eccentricity of Mars's orbit, but waiting for a nine-month transfer window back to Earth would take 16 months – a 34-month round trip.
Such extended time in space is ruinous for human health due to cosmic rays and other ionizing radiation. There are also the effects of prolonged weightlessness including bone mineral density loss and eyesight impairment. This is assuming that there isn't a catastrophic failure of the spacecraft or life support systems.
As such, under the technology currently available to us, a trip to Mars would likely be one-way for those involved. While pretending to be living on the Red Planet in the deserts of Utah has noble intentions, you're still on Earth – so yes, the robot proven to have therapeutic effects on stress would probably work.
Actual Mars – and the time it takes to get there – is a different story. Perhaps one day we could see Paro or a developed form of it accompany brave men and women headed out there, but they might need a robot seal club accessory in case the thing goes rogue. ®