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Rise of the bots

Locked down and self-isolated, we may be growing more willing to accept robots as social companions, according to new research from the University of Waterloo.

Resistance to social robots is easing as people either experience isolation themselves or see how it is affecting others, according to a survey for UW’s Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Laboratory.

“This change in perception is likely because COVID-19 has caused people to pay more attention to the consequences of being socially isolated,” said Moojan Ghafurian, a research professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“In the absence of human contact, a social robot can, to some extent, act as a companion and reduce isolation.”

The researchers designed an online questionnaire to measure how restrictions during the health crisis have impacted people’s lives and their attitudes towards social robots.

Ghafurian says there was a correlation between diminishing state of mental health and rising levels of acceptance to social robots.

“One of our goals in the social sciences and robotics lab is to build socially and emotionally intelligent robots that can promote health and wellbeing. For example, to be a caregiver to those with dementia, [helping] with different activities of daily living, or to support mental health by promoting companionship to those who are socially isolated,” she explained.

Ghafurian collaborated on the study with Colin Ellard, a professor of psychology, and Kerstin Dautenhahn, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics.

Despite some softening of public opinion, there are those with a negative outlook on robots in general, says Ghafurian.

“Many people do not have a positive attitude to our social robots. They’re seeing them as replacements for human contact or for social interaction.”

In this recent study, the data show that people’s perceptions of robots change over time and under circumstances of isolation. Still, worries remain about the likes of jobs being taken over by automation, as well as a general unwillingness to learn how to interact with the machines.

In the past, robot companions created at the University of Waterloo have been used to assist in the lives of children with autism and in the field of elderly care.

“There are situations like this pandemic or sometimes with older adults who are socially isolated where they cannot have this human contact. So the social robots can to some extent simulate that for them, and fill out the existing gaps. So they’re complementing not replacing anything,” explained Ghafurian.

Some of these social robots have more animalistic appearances that benefit in assisting older adults. The seal-like robotic replica provides a near form of animal therapy, whereas the more human appearing creations provide a different companionship style.

According to Ghafurian, improved levels of emotional understanding may also increase the level of acceptance.

“That’s a subfield of artificial intelligence, called affective computing – it is how we can simulate emotional displays on a robot and how can the robot understand humans’ emotions,” she said, noting the goal is to help improve these robots to understand the complex human emotional system, how to interact better and replicate the states of emotion.

Researchers will be monitoring the impact of a potential second wave and resultant lockdown to see if those most affected by the measures show the same increase in acceptance levels, for instance. They are hopeful that changing perceptions of companion robots during the pandemic will help speed up their adoption, especially among isolated older adults, once it is over.

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