The Rise of the Robot Therapist

Is there a robot therapist in your future?

Posted Nov 17, 2014

In recent years, we've seen a rise in different interactive technologies and new ways  of using them to treat various mental problems.  Among other things, this includes online, computer-based, and even virtual reality approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy. But what about using robots to provide treatment and/or emotional support?  

The field of robotics has rapidly advanced to the point that social robots have become increasingly common. Defined as an "artificially intelligent system that has a physical embodiment, is autonomous, and interacts and communicates with humans," social robots  such as Tico, Jibo, and iCub are already moving beyond the laboratory to interacting with people in real-life environments.   Some social robots such as Hitchbot have even become media stars and their potential to do far more is just beginning to be understood.

Some researchers have already coined a new term, robotherapy, to describe the different ways that social robots can be used to help people in need. This includes specialized robots for helping children, adults, or the elderly with cognitive, social, or physical problems.  Not only can robots be available twenty-four hours a day, but they may also help with the growing shortage of trained support workers, especially for older adults with dementia. Research has already shown that social robots can help improve the quality of life for many people who might otherwise "fall between the cracks" due to not having the help they need.

The idea of using robots in therapy is to help people by taking over many of the tasks for which they would ordinarily need human assistance. This allows them to be more independent and stay out of total care institutions for as long as possible.  A new article published in Review of General Psychology provides an overview of some of the latest advances in robotherapy and what we can expect in the future. Written by Cristina Costecu and David O. David of Romania's Babes-Bolyai University and Bram Vanderborgt of Vrije Universiteit in Belgium, the article covers different studies showing how robotics are transforming personal care.    

Though there are a wide range of different uses for robotic therapy, Costecu and her colleagues focused on how robotics are benefiting older adults with medical problems as well as individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For both these populations,  robots may well represent a way of providing better and more affordable health care. 

As I have described in a previous post,  the rising number of dementia cases worldwide is already straining existing services and may well stretch health care systems to the breaking point in the coming decades. By 2060, an estimated thirty percent of all Europeans will be over the age of sixty compared with seventeen percent in 2010.   Will there be enough young people to care for them all by then?  And who will provide the care if there aren't?  Though social robots such as the Care-o-bot, telepresence robots Giraff and  VGo, and companion robots such as  Aibo, Yumel, PLEO, and Huggable are already being used in many facilities for the elderly, more rigorous research is still needed to measure their effectiveness in health care.  

As for individuals with autism, research has already shown that they can be even more responsive to treatment using social robots than with human therapists due to their difficulty with social cues. For this reason, several different programs have been developed to use electronic or robot tools for treating autistics. These include the AuRoRa (Autonomous Robot as a Remedial Tool for Autistic Children) Project and the the IROMEC (Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions) Project. 

Though getting children with autism to participate in treatment is often frustrating for human therapists, they often respond extremely well to robot-based therapy to help them become more independent. Unfortunately, there is still only limited research so far looking at the kind of gains autistic patients make or whether social robots can help them develop better social skills.

In their overview on the effectiveness of robotherapy, Costecu, David and Vanderborgt reviewed over a dozen studies conducted over the past twenty years.  By comparing these  studies, the authors examined how useful social robots were in treatment.  As well, they looked at how effective robotherapy has beein in helping patients develop better cognitive skills, learn to control their behaviour, and cope with emotional problems.  

What they found was a fairly strong treatment effect for using robots in therapy. Compared to the participants getting robotic therapy, 69 percent of the 581 study participants getting alternative treatment performed more poorly overall.  Social robots appear to be particularly effective in helping participants with behaviour problems develop better control over their behaviour. As far as improving cognitive and emotional performance go, the results are less impressive but this may be due to how the research studies were carried out. None of the moderating factors that were studied (such as the different ways robots were used in treatment and whether or not the robot had a human face) seemed to make any difference to the overall results.

So what do these results suggest about the use of robots in therapy?  For helping specific kinds of populations, such as people with autism, social robots appear to be extremely effective. Not only can robot-enhanced therapy ease the workload of human therapists, they can also lower the cost of treatment and help patients who have greater difficulty dealing with humans in social settings.   Robots can be used in a variety of different ways while their value in providing direct feedback to patients and interacting with them on a regular basis helps improve the overall therapy process.

As robots become more sophisticated, versatile, and affordable with time, we are likely to see more of them in treatment settings, especially with the growing problem of finding enough trained human therapists to keep up with demand.  Though it can never completely eliminate the need for human therapists, robot-enhanced therapy is already yielding results, especially with difficult populations such as dementia patients and individuals with autism.  

So, is there a robot therapist in your future?  What do you think?

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