The rise of friendly social robots for our mental health

The pandemic has had a profound impact on our daily lives, particularly affecting our mental health. Social robots could help us.

The impact of the pandemic on our mental health and the use of technology

The pandemic has had a profound impact on our daily lives, particularly affecting our mental health. According to the World Health Organization, although before Covid-19 many people around the world already suffered from common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, in the long months that we have been in the pandemic, mental problems have increased significantly. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a boom in technology-based healthcare. The question is: Could social robots become an alternative to use them to assist our mental health and well-being? [1]

It is a fact that the pandemic has suddenly altered humanity’s relationship with technology. Whereas before 2020 many of us divided our lives between the real and the virtual world, sharing time for both, now pandemic life has blurred the line between what is’ ‘real’ ‘and what is’ ‘virtual’, combining the computer generated and the physical realm into a closely interconnected experience. The pandemic led us to be more dependent on technology, bringing us closer to the possibility to seriously consider the use of robots as well. The presence of robots in our daily life is increasing, just consider that a total of 41.8 million robots (a fraction of them being social robots) are projected to enter households worldwide by 2020 to perform useful tasks or provide help and assistance to humans [2] [3].

The likelihood of social robots in our lives

The development of robotics technology is improving and growing fast with astonishing results that are gradually approaching what we have seen in science fiction movies. The gap between fiction and reality in robotics is getting closer. However, robots are far away from reaching the level of intelligence, motor skills, and sociability to interact effectively with people. Our concepts about robots are somehow exaggerated and influenced by literature, movies, media coverage, news, and social media. Many people have a negative perception about robots, because consider they can harm us in the future, or they can replace us in our jobs.

From a positive perspective, robots are truly necessary in the manufacturing industry, and most probably they will become increasingly used in other areas such as healthcare and services. One of those areas of application that is particularly interesting and promising is the mental health and senior care assistance [4]. Social robots could indeed become a viable alternative to use them to support and assist our mental health, and successfully socialize with them, such as those interesting use cases now happening in robot care in senior living homes.

Our focus is not on industrial robots, such as those found in factories, we want to pin out the value of “social robots”. A social robot is defined as a robot that is designed to interact with humans and cause an emotional connection. The social robot gives us the possibility of being able to interact with a “someone” rather than with a “something” [5].

Anthropomorphism, prosocial behavior, and conformity

There are several concepts that must be considered before to analyze the scope and implications of human-robot interaction (HRI). A relevant concept is the so-called “anthropomorphism”, which consists on that people have a strong tendency to perceive “non-human” agents in “human” conditions by attributing mental states, emotions and intentions to them. Just to compare, a good example of anthropomorphism that most people experience, is our relationship with our pets, the “human” attributions that we project onto them: how we speak to, how we treat them and how we interact with them. This behavior produces advantages because attributing human intention to animals, robots, or any other object, real or imaginary, is a way people make sense of their actions and events to relate to these “non-human” agents [6]. While it has been shown that humans can attribute mental states (e.g., intentions, agency) to robots and other inanimate objects, this process is not automatic and depends significantly on the robots being active and interactive, not passive.

Another important concept is that of “prosocial behavior” which consists of actions that benefit people other than oneself, such as helping, sharing, or comforting [7]. Prosocial behavior involves the ability to take another person’s perspective and understand that their needs and desires may be different from our own, and possibly experience empathic interest for them. The social behavior we have towards robots has been analyzed by scholar researchers and the results indicate that, although we tend to anthropomorphize robots, this does not necessarily make us more socially considerate of them in everyday situations [4].

There are several risks of course.  The interaction with other people can lead us to modify our behaviors and can lead us to do things that we do not necessarily agree with, a phenomenon known in psychology as “conformity”. We have a general tendency to adjust one’s opinions, judgments, or actions so that they are more consistent with the opinions, judgments or actions of other people or the norms and traditions of a social group or situation as was demonstrated in Salomon Asch’s conformity experiments.

This conformity behavior has a significant impact on an expected socialization with robots, the interaction with “non-human” agents, such as robots, does indeed change our behavior. In an experiment planned to take a risky behavior in the presence of a robot, it was shown that the robot can exert pressure to influence people in taking a risky behavior. The results revealed that the participants who were encouraged by the robot in the experiment did engage in risky behavior [8].

Social robots to assist children and senior

A promising application of social robots is happening in the two sides of age groups: children and the senior. In the case of children, for example, robots already show great potential for providing therapy to children with autism. Research has found that interacting with therapy robots increases engagement, attention, and novel behaviors (such as spontaneous robot imitation) among children with autism [9] [10].

Most senior want to continue living independently, and technologies can allow them to stay in their own home longer before moving to a retirement home. Social robots can reduce depression by involving older people in social interaction. Older people are faced with managing their medications properly, and social robots can be of great help to interact and assist in these tasks. There are already today a wide variety of very useful social robot products such as Paro, Jibo, ElliQ, just to name a few [11].

Loneliness, particularly during this COVID pandemic, is a growing global public health problem that substantially increases the risk of morbidity and mortality. Artificial agents, such as robots, could be helpful in providing companionship and reducing patient loneliness by providing social support. Robots could help older people improve their level of physical activity and reduce social isolation. [12] [13].

Digital voice assistants, not exactly a social robot, but…

A survey of 12,000 people found that workers around the world are looking for digital assistants and chatbots with artificial intelligence technology to cope with mental health during the pandemic. These artificial intelligent technologies provide a judgment-free zone for employees to seek advice and share their stresses and are immediately available to answer health-related questions. This behavior reveals that companionship of social robots could work [14].

More and more people are using digital voice assistants today. In 2020, there will be 4.2 billion digital voice assistants being used in devices around the world [15]. These devices have a primitive artificial intelligence, only able to understand a few phrases to execute voice instructions. They don´t have the skill to establish a fluid interactive conversation, but remarkably they can “pretend” to do with a sort of short conversational dialogue phrases. A scholar research on how the people creates trust and attitudes toward virtual assistants using the integration of human computer interaction theories and the para-social relationship theory, found that individuals interact with virtual assistants treating them as social entities, employing human social rules, that is, anthropomorphism. [16]

Last remarks

Predicting the future is hard, and although technology improves very fast, we need to be cautious and realistic in foreseeing a future scenario for the social robots. The expectations about robots are deeply influenced by the media, movies, and social networks. But there are several useful social robot products being used now in both children and older people, and the usefulness and effectiveness portrayed in research papers are hopeful [17].

It is undeniable that technology still has a long way to go to result in a better human-robot interaction and achieve effective outcomes towards the application of social robots for mental health. Our psychological behavior to anthropomorphize “non-human” agents is advantageous to endow social robots with “human” characteristics. We could prudently expect that it will not take a long time for social robots to become a widespread useful instrument. At least the use cases today and the results being available today on scholar research suggest that it would be feasible.


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