Social Robots Might Improve Psychosocial Interventions, But Results Remain Murky

Luna Adler
JULY 15, 2019
robot therapy,robotics healthcare,social robots,healthcare ai

Social robots — human and non-humanoid machines that can interact with people — have the potential to advance healthcare.

Progress can already be seen in robot-assisted surgery and the proliferation of exoskeleton devices. But there are many areas that have yet to be explored.

A new study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, undertook a comprehensive review of 27 trials in which social robots delivered psychosocial interventions for health and well-being. While results were largely promising, they were hindered by small sample sizes, lack of independent randomization, blind assessment or follow-up and elementary statistical analyses. The majority of the trials focused on children, the elderly and patients with autism spectrum disorder, which also limited results. Overall, it is clear that research is still at an early stage.

When emerging robotic technologies mature, researchers believe they will be useful in delivering self-guided health programs. In addition to being more cost-effective and scalable, these interventions can remove the variable of perceived human judgment.

With social robots taking over low-intensity, routine tasks, therapists would be available to do more individualized work.

“Practitioners should be spending as much time as possible on the tasks that they are trained to do incredibly well, such as counselling or caring for patients during their treatment process,” said lead researcher Nicole Robinson, Ph.D., a Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at Queensland University of Technology.

The hope is that robots will be able to complete simple tasks, demonstrate skills and communicate information.

“In an ideal scenario, healthcare practitioners are involved in the design and programming of a social robot that will work with patients on a healthcare management task,” Robinson added. “They are not designed to replace healthcare professionals in any way.”

Social robots also have the potential to cut future healthcare costs by providing preventive care. 

“Currently, we cannot provide interventions for all those who want to change their behaviors before they reach a form of diagnosis,” said Leonie Cooper, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom and a colleague of Robinson. “Of course, many will still need to go on to see therapists, but robots can support many who need psychological support in a range of domains from alcohol usage to weight loss support.”

Increased use of robots could offer large-scale financial benefits. If robots can service a large number of patients, they will extend the reach and impact of healthcare organizations.

But to realize the widespread use of social robots, researchers must conduct large-scale controlled trials. They must conduct more research before they can understand the psychological outcomes of using robots to improve human health and well-being. Humans must also become more comfortable interacting with the machines.

Researchers believe these issues will be addressed in the coming years as technology develops and social robots become more accessible.

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