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How robots can coach us on our mental health

Scientists believe robots can be useful tools to promote mental well-being in the workplace.

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A non-humanoid robot. (Photo by University of Cambridge via SWNS)

By Pol Allingham via SWNS

Robots can coach us on our mental health - provided they don’t look like humans, according to a new study.

Wellbeing coaching robots were deployed by the University of Cambridge in a tech consultancy firm – one looked like a toy, and one a “humanoid.”

Every week each bot coached 26 employees on how to feel good. Bar their physical appearance they were identical in their voice, facial expressions, and scripts.

Participants who were helped by the toy robot said they felt more of a connection than those who worked with the humanoid.

Scientists put this down to popular culture, leading us to believe automatons’ capacities are limited only by our imagination.

In the real-world people were disappointed their expectations of a human-like mental health machine were not met.

The human-bot bond was better than the toy because its simpler appearance led them to expect less.

During the four-week experiment staff were guided through four well-being exercises by either the humanoid QTRobot (QT), or the toy-like Misty II robot (Misty.) They did not switch bots.

QT is a childlike humanoid roughly 90cm tall, while Misty is a 36cm tall toy-like robot. Both have screen faces that can be programmed with different facial expressions.

In every session, the bot asked participants to recall a positive experience or describe something they are grateful for, before following up with questions.

After the session employees were asked to assess the robot with a questionnaire and interview.

Participants reported the classes were useful and they would be open to talking to a robot in the future.

Their main qualms were expectations not being met, as they anticipated more interactivity.

A participant with the humanoid robot. (Photo by University of Cambridge via SWNS)

Co-author Minja Axelsson, University of Cambridge, said: “We interviewed different well-being coaches and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness.

“The robots were programmed to have the same personality, the same facial expressions and the same voice, so the only difference between them was the physical robot form.

“Our perceptions of how robots should look or behave might be holding back the uptake of robotics in areas where they can be useful.”

Scientists believe robots can be useful tools to promote mental well-being in the workplace.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends employers work to protect mental health in the office, but the practice is limited by a lack of resources and personnel.

Automatons show early promise they could serve as the bridge. However, most well-being robot studies have been conducted in a laboratory.

Dr. Micol Spitale, the paper’s first author, said: “We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world.

“It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations.

“But since QT is more humanoid, they expected it to behave like a human, which may be why participants who worked with QT were slightly underwhelmed.”

Next, the team wants to develop the artificial coaches’ responsiveness during the sessions.

Study lead, Professor Hatice Gunes from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, said: “The most common response we had from participants was that their expectations of the robot didn’t match with reality.

“We programmed the robots with a script, but participants were hoping there would be more interactivity.

“It’s incredibly difficult to create a robot that’s capable of natural conversation. New developments in large language models could really be beneficial in this respect.”

The results were presented at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm.

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