A Japanese inventor was presented with a $250,000 grant by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today for his pioneering work improving the health of older people with a device programmed to mimic a seal.

Professor Takanori Shibata, chief senior research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan, was presented with the annual Ryman Prize at a Birkenhead retirement village for his work to ease the burden of older people suffering from dementia.

The prize is an international award for the best work carried out anywhere in the world which has enhanced quality of life for older people. It was introduced by former Prime Minister John Key in 2015 and was established as an equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

One of Shibata's products named PARO was a drug-free, therapeutic robot which used sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence software to mimic a real seal. The device is proven to improve mood, reduce anxiety, decrease perception of pain, enhance sleep and decrease feelings of loneliness in patients.


"I am extremely proud to have won the Ryman Prize,'' 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."

PARO was first produced in 2005 and has been used in 30 countries. Its pioneering design has been included in exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art.

Shibata said he set out to create a drug-free alternative which soothed and reassured patients by responding to touch and speech.

"The health challenges faced by older people are enormous and growing but technology is changing just as quickly," he said.

"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.''

Shibata's device was in its ninth generation and he said he would use the money to invest in more research.

Past winners of the Ryman prize included Gabi Hollows from the Fred Hollows Foundation,
Professor Henry Brodaty for work in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's and dementia and Professor Peter St George-Hyslop, a geneticist who focused on key genes which caused cells to degenerate in diseases such as early onset Alzheimer's disease.