Socially Assistive Robots: The Psychology of Robotic Helpers

November 20 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Technology   Year: 2008   Rating: 3

Socially assistive robots — robots that help care for the disabled, elderly or injured — will be a primary part of the coming robotics revolution, argued Maja Mataric founding director of the USC Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the Robo Development Conference in Santa Clara on Tuesday.  But because of subtle psychological factors, they need to be carefully designed.

As the elderly and disabled population grows, health care and care-giving costs are sky-rocketing. Add to this a shortage of properly trained care-givers and you have a market ideal for robot helpers. Robots have the potential to be much less expensive than human caregivers and will not be bored or drained in caring for human patients. Thus, effective socially assistive robots could reduce costs, provide patient independence, and increase the quality of life for those that need around the clock care, not to mention reduce stress on their families.

Yet, as Mataric’s research has shown, people react differently to robots than they do to other technology. Make a robot too tall, too large, too realistic or too artificial and you wont forge a connection with a person.

Design Challenges for Human-Robot Interaction

A robot that approaches 75% of a person’s height tends to be intimidating. If a robot is too large or heavy, it could injure someone if it falls over. A robot that attempts to appear human will fall short of the mark and come off as creepy. It’s far better to avoid life-like and go for cartoon-like believability. Synthetic voices also tend to put people off, so pre-recorded human voices are best. A simple humanoid robot tends to be considered male, even by women. This means robots must have a feminized form if they are to use a female voice. Cameras placed in the “back” of a robot, regardless of the robot’s shape, tend to make people uncomfortable as well.

A robot’s personality should also be carefully designed. Just as people interact best with other people that have personalities similar to their own, people also interact better with robots matched to their personality. Matric’s lab made several studies that determined how extroverted an individual (robot or human) is: how close they stand to others, how quickly they speak, the pitch of their speech and how much they actually talked. They then created introverted or extroverted robots accordingly.

The extroverted robot approached people more quickly, stood closer to them, spoke in a higher pitch, spoke more quickly and gave more assertive instructions. The introverted robot moved more slowly, approached more cautiously, spoke in a lower pitch and was not as commanding. Pair an extroverted person with an introverted robot or visa versa and the person won’t respond as well.

The Power of Positive Robotic Presence

When the careful balance is achieved, a robotic presence can have a dramatic effect. A patient paired with a small robot of a like personality will carry out even boring, repetitive, or painful exercises longer than if left alone or paired with a virtual on-screen robot.

In some cases, robots even function better than human coaches and caregivers. One stroke victim who was coached by simple robot to perform repetitious rehabilitation exercises reported that the robot was more encouraging and motivating than her husband. Some autistic children that typically never smile or imitate movements will imitate robots and smile at them. These same children often interacted better with other people in the room if a robot is present — a remarkable breakthrough.


The implications of this robot-human connection are profound. It is not hard to imagine a future in which dreaded nursing homes and isolating institutions are made obsolete by small, friendly robots. A place where the disabled achieve unprecedented freedom and independence, where autistic children are given better treatment and learn more skills through robotic therapy. Socially assistive robots may not be as sexy as flying cars or as dramatic as self assembling nanobots—but they are likely a part of our future and they will bring a bring a greater quality of life to many.

Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. Nursing homes have always made me somewhat uncomfortable. Plus, I’m pretty sure that the residents aren’t really treated that well. I’ve had experience with nursing homes before, and there’s a stigma in the media. So, this seems like a good thing. But we’ll never really know unless more progress is made with the development.

    Posted by: christinep   November 21, 2008
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