He is a sweet furry creature named Paro, and, yes, he’s a robot. So what’s the problem?

It appears that the $6,000 device designed to comfort people with dementia rattles some eldercare experts who believe that a fake therapeutic animal is not a healthy replacement for a real one.

Dr. Bill Thomas, who founded the Eden Alternative, which emphasizes animals in the long-term care environment, is not so keen on these robotic companions. A robot that cooks or cleans is fine, but it should not replace a human or animal in the emotion-giving department, Thomas says.

The problem is that “if we wind up with nursing homes full of baby-seal robots, the robots will be trying to fulfill the relationship piece of caregiving, while the humans are running around changing the beds and cooking the food,” Thomas told The Wall Street Journal recently.

Purring Paro

But even Thomas has to admit that this little toy, which is modeled after a baby harp seal, is kind of cute. I actually saw and petted him at last year’s annual conference of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. He is soft (he’s covered in artificial fur) and makes cooing sounds when you touch him. He also can blink his long black eyelashes.

The little gizmo is smart too. He has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature and posture sensors, so he can perceive people and its environment. He can recognize light, and can feel being stroked. He also can recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.

The gadget has a small international following. More than 1,300 Paros have been sold in Japan since 2005. More than 100 Paros have been sold in Denmark, with another 900 scheduled for delivery by 2011. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Paro as a Class 2 medical device in September. Delivery began in the United States in December. Paro Robots U.S. Inc., located in Itasca, IL, is selling and distributing the high-tech toy in the United States.

One organization, Pittsburgh-based Vincentian Collaborative System used a $55,000 grant to purchase eight Paros. Vincentian uses Paro to help dementia residents who become agitated or aggressive. It uses Paro as an intervention before medication.

So is there an ethical problem in using a robot for pet therapy? I don’t necessarily think so. If a toy, for whatever reason, helps to calm a resident with Alzheimer’s, then why not use it? Dolls already are being used in many Alzheimer’s units. Sunrise Senior Living Inc. actually has doll stations in its Reminiscence Neighborhoods to help trigger residents’ memories of when they were raising children.

Sure, Paro does not have real emotions (and needs a charge every now and again), but he makes some residents feel good. It doesn’t strike me that there’s any harm in that.