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Connecting to other humans can be hard. It can be hard because of disorders like autism or depression. It can be hard because of behaviors learned from a young age. Or it can be hard because someone has an introverted personality. Whatever the reason (and there are plenty more of them), for some of us, it’s a daily struggle. But as Jasna Burza writes, “Our well-being depends on our connection with others.” So, how can those of us who have a hard time connecting find a way to relate to other people?
Researchers are starting to think therapeutic robots could be one part of that solution.
Physical therapy has used robotic systems for a while now. These same systems are starting to branch out. Assistive robots are being tested for their functionality in psychological therapy. Their biggest achievements, thus far, have been seen in children with disorders like autism or in elderly patients.
Children with autism often have trouble interacting with their peers and adults. They can, also, have an inability to empathize with other people’s emotions. In short, their disorder limits their capacity to connect with other people.
“Bubblebot” was created to help children with disorders like, but not limited to, autism. Brian Scassellati, PhD, a social robotics researcher at Yale, told the American Psychological Association (APA) that autistic children tend to gravitate towards technology. He said, “In almost all cases, you see kids with autism get very excited to interact with [a] robot[.] And they have sustained interest.”
An autistic child’s curiosity in interacting with a robot is important. It can be seen as the first step towards learning how to connect with someone (or something). This is a great achievement because, now, they are not forced to step out of their comfort zone, but they are doing it on their own will. And if they learn how to socially behave with a robot, the thought is that they can then take those skills and apply them in real life.
Maja Mataric, PhD, is a robotics researcher at the University of Southern California who developed “bubblebot”. Her previous graduate student, David Feil-Seifer, PhD, helped create this robot alongside her. She has seen, firsthand, “bubblebot” help teach autistic children how to connect to other people.
She recalled, in an interview to APA, an autistic child interacting with “bubblebot”. He became irritated when he told the robot to do something and the robot would not do it. He then stated, “This is how my teacher feels when I don’t do what the teacher says.” By using the robot, the child was able to learn to empathize with the frustration he had seen his teacher feel. This lesson of empathy could go on to be implemented in his daily life when he is in school or playing with other kids. And that’s a huge success if you ask me.
It is no secret that a lot of elderly patients in nursing or assisted living homes suffer from loneliness. The elderly also have a higher risk of not being able to relate to their caregivers and/or peers. This inability to connect could come from Dementia. It could come from some form of a debilitating mental disease or even from depression.
That’s why researcher’s at Japan’s AIST developed Paro. Paro is a soft, “stuffed-animal” like seal robot that’s sole purpose is to bring comfort to its owner. Paro reacts to sound and touch. It can move, coo, wiggle, and blink its eyes. It’s said to reduce negative factors in a person’s life like stress and loneliness. While also increasing mood and the ability to connect on a social level.
From what I understand, it seems as if the owner of Paro starts out by learning to care for and interact with this “seal”. Then, after a while of connecting with the seal their happiness increases. They are, at that time, able to take the social and behavioral skills they have learned from caring and interacting with the robot and apply it to everyday life.
The function of this robot seems to be a little bit different from the robots meant for children with autism. This robot appears to re-teach elderly patients how to connect with an object. As a result, they are able to connect with people in real life. (Whereas with children who have autism, the robots seem to just teach them skills they do not have.) Though, I think one the biggest factors with this robot is it lets the user really care about something, maybe even for the first time in years. To me, the benefits that follow that are unparalleled.
The use of robots in therapy is still very new. There is a lot of research that needs to be done on the true effects therapeutic robots have on patients. It does seem promising though. Teaching social skills in children with autism or allowing elderly patients to have a companion are essential uses. But robot therapy could even go on to help those with other disorders.
They could be there for patients who are having flashbacks from PTSD or for those who suffer from anxiety and need something to calm them down. They could help teach healthy behaviors like encouraging patients to work-out or to do their homework. The potential for these therapeutic robots is limitless. I don’t think, however, that robots will ever be able to replace the need for therapists and psychiatrists, but it does look like they could be an essential tool in rehabilitation and growth.
At our worst, humans can be judgmental, mean, and hurtful. So for those of us who already have trouble connecting with people, getting help on how to do that from a non-judgmental robot could be a dream come true. Who knows? Robotic therapy could be the first step in teaching us all (those with disorders and even those without) better and healthier ways to connect with each other than ever before. And after all, being able to connect with others is one of the essential things we need to stay happy and healthy.
Everyone needs help sometimes. Would you accept that help from a robot?
* Much of the information in this blog post was found through APA’s article
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