UTA Using Robots, Shakespeare to Study Ways to Address Loneliness

Xconomy Texas — 

Dallas—In healthcare, robots are being created to help with tasks like disinfecting hospital rooms or alerting patients when it’s time to take medications. A study at the Emotional Robotics Living Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington is even exploring how human-robot connection can help fight depression.

“We are looking at robots that would be companions socially with human beings,” says Julienne Greer, an assistant professor of theatre at UTA, who specializes in robotics and performance. Greer also serves as the director of the lab, which was launched in November.

Despite the many ways that technology supposedly binds us together—through 24/7 e-mail, video chats, and social media, for example—many people still feel isolated and disconnected. And as the population ages, the lack of real-world human interaction among the elderly can lead to depression. (On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister of loneliness, following a report that more than 9 million people in the U.K. always or are often lonely.)

Scientists and startup founders are looking at a variety of ways in which robots could potentially help people feel less lonely. For example, Catalia Health in San Francisco has paired with healthcare systems to conduct three trials of its prototype robot, named Mabu. The robot has been paired with patients suffering from kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and congestive heart failure in trials. In addition to testing out the robots’ hardware, the trials are also seeking to understand how people bond with their human-like companions.

To study those interactions, UTA has enlisted the help of Shakespeare. Researchers from the university’s living lab recently completed a study with older adults at an independent living facility in North Texas where robots and adults spoke to each other using well-known sonnets from the Bard. Greer says they found that after three weeks of interactions, there was a significant drop in feelings of depression among the facility’s residents and that they engaged with the robots more often over time.

The study was a digital twist to one conducted by Gene Cohen in 2006 that looked at how arts and cultural activities can promote healthier aging. Cohen had founded the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University. “With robots, we get many of the same positives,” Greer says.

While smartphones are increasingly equipped with technology that can facilitate interactions—think of asking Siri for directions—Greer says they can’t quite rise to the level of a human-like experience. “I don’t necessarily think, ‘This has been a really rough day, I think I’ll talk to my phone a little bit,’” she says. “It’s not the same thing as a robot that I can come home to that says, ‘What about if we work on that piece of poetry we were working on two days ago.’”

UTA’s living lab, which is made up of spaces set up to look like a person’s home—either for older adults featuring mid-century furniture or for children, including toys and play areas—is part of a multidisciplinary effort that includes professors in theatre arts and sociology, as well as ones with expertise in software programming and device design. The lab has two resident robots, Nao and Pepper, which are both made by SoftBank Robotics. Pepper, which has been commercially available since 2015 and is billed as having the ability to read human emotion, is already in use in Japan—one of the world’s most elderly societies—greeting bank customers and chanting Buddhist sutras in funerals in place of a human priest.

Artificial intelligence innovations will continue to refine robots’ human characteristics to include tics, patterns of speech, and other distinctive features, Greer says. “There are just so many applications,” she says. “In the next decade, it will explode.”