Haru the Robot was part of the study.
Researchers at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering are studying the use of social robots that can support communication and mental health during social distancing.
Associate Professor of Informatics Selma Sabanovic and Sawyer Collins, a Ph.D. candidate in informatics, are conducting online surveys to get a better understanding of how people are connecting to friends and family during this period of social distancing. They also are asking participants to design their own robots to get an idea of how social distancing robots might look and act to provide needed social interactions.
“In this time when everyone is required to socially distance themselves from others, and loneliness is even more prevalent, we thought social robots might be a tool that can connect people regardless of health status,” Sabanovic said. “We are studying how people are connecting to one another through technology when they can’t interact physically, through social media, for example, and are exploring how they might want to use robots to extend their ability to communicate with other people. We are particularly interested in the kinds of design features and capabilities they would want such robots to have, what their desired interactions might look like.”
Sabanovic and Collins have previously researched the use of social robots as in-home companions for older adults who were homebound due to health issues. The study showed lower levels of depression and loneliness for the users. With the outbreak of COVID-19 forcing people into social distancing, extending the research was a natural.
“We are still in the process of analyzing the data we collected over the past couple of weeks, so we don’t have systematic findings quite yet,” Collins said. “It seems that people are very interested in having robots be a tool that they can talk to and get information from, even though they would still miss people. The robot is not likely to surpass interaction with other humans, but it can be of some assistance during times of social distancing.”
Participants in the survey, which is funded by the Honda Research Institute, are particularly interested in the design of the eyes of the robot and if anything could be “read” from the robot’s reaction. People also seem to be particularly interested in developing tactile interaction with the robot and having the robot respond to their touch. Privacy concerns also are part of the discussion, with people choosing ambient sensors for their designs that were less likely to collect identifiable personal information.
“We’re particularly interested in the use scenarios that our participants see as desirable and viable in the future,” Sabanovic said. “Being able to do research and connect with participants during this pandemic is wonderful—it not only gives us an opportunity to ask questions regarding social distancing and isolation in this particular time, but it also helps us prepare for future needs and ways that robots could be used to help us communicate with others. It is also great to be able to continue to work with the research team and participants, even remotely.”
The work is still in its early stages, and the team will present its full findings in the future.
“This kind of research is so critical to understanding an important need people have to interact in this time of social distancing,” said Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at the Luddy School. “Social robots have the potential to play a critical role for so many people in the future, and the research being conducted by Selma and her team in this area is a perfect example of the way the Luddy School makes a real-world impact through innovation.”