Inspired by seeing the benefits that animal therapy could bring to dementia patients, Professor Takanori Shibata set about creating a robot that could soothe and reassure patients by responding to touch and speech – yet doesn’t bite or need feeding.

Professor Shibata’s efforts were recognised last week with the presentation of the 2018 Ryman Prize. The prize was in recognition of his more than 25 years of ground-breaking research into new technology to help older people.

Professor Shibata, an artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics pioneer, was presented with the prize by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a special ceremony in Auckland on Friday.

The Ryman Prize is an annual $250,000 international award for the best work carried out anywhere in the world that has enhanced quality of life for older people. It is the richest prize of its kind in the world.

Professor Shibata, Chief Senior Research Scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan, was awarded this year’s prize for his tenacity in pursing new technology to help ease the burden of older people suffering from dementia.

In 1993 he set out to use the latest advances in artificial intelligence and robotics to create a device that would be a practical help to older people with conditions such as dementia.

His product, PARO, is a drug-free therapeutic robot that uses sensors, robotics and sophisticated Artificial Intelligence software to mimic a real seal.

It has been proven as a drug-free therapeutic alternative to improve mood, reduce anxiety, decrease perception of pain, enhance sleep and decrease feelings of loneliness in patients.

PARO has been in production since 2005 and is used in 30 countries.

The Japanese inventor was delighted to win and said he would be using the money to invest in more research.

“I am extremely proud to have won the Ryman Prize,’’ Takanori Shibata said.

“It represents a lot of work over the past 25 years, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of many people and my family.

“I set out to find a way to use technology as an alternative drug-free therapy to ease the suffering of patients with dementia.

“The health challenges faced by older people are enormous and growing but technology is changing just as quickly.

“We’ve proved that this is possible, and that Artificial Intelligence has huge potential for the future. We’ve pioneered a way of working but there is a lot more work to do.’’

Prime Minister Ardern said she was honoured to present Professor Shibata with the Prize and praised his dedication and great effort.

“There are a number of illnesses that our older citizens are experiencing that we need to do more research around, not only to combat them, but to add greater quality of life,” she said.

“What we see with the Ryman Prize is extraordinary people who are doing that work to improve that quality of life for all our family members, and so that’s why I’m so heartened to see Ryman investing and encouraging that work because it’s so important, particularly as our age and demographic and our profile in New Zealand changes, and we want to encourage that globally as well as domestically.

“So thank you for that work and thank you to everyone who has ever worked in this sector.”

Previous Ryman Prize Winners

The prize was launched in 2015 and the inaugural prize was won by Gabi Hollows, the founding director of The Fred Hollows Foundation. Gabi Hollows set up the charity with her late husband Professor Fred Hollows, and together they worked tirelessly to tackle the problem of preventable blindness in the developing world.

The 2016 prize was won by Professor Henry Brodaty. Professor Brodaty is a pioneer in diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia and his influence has been felt around the world.

The 2017 Ryman Prize was won by Professor Peter St George-Hyslop, a geneticist and researcher based at Cambridge and the University of Toronto. Peter has spent 30 years researching neuro-degenerative diseases, focusing on discovering the key genes and proteins that cause cells to degenerate in diseases such as early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Ryman Prize jury includes:

  • Professor Brian Draper, Conjoint Professor in the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales.
  • Professor Sarah Harper CBE, Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.
  • Professor Tim Wilkinson, consulting geriatrician and Associate Dean of Medical Education, Otago School of Medicine.
  • Dr Naoko Muramatsu, health and ageing research specialist, University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Professor Erwin Neher, Nobel Laureate and Professor at the University of Göttingen, Germany. Dr Neher is a biophysicist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1991.
  • Dr David Kerr, Ryman Healthcare Chairman, Fellow and Past President of the New Zealand Medical Association, Fellow with Distinction of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.
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