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What are Social Robots and How Can They Help Us?

Animated image of humans interacting with social robots

Image by macrovector on Freepik

In a world increasingly driven by technology, the boundaries of human-machine interaction are constantly being pushed. At the intersection of cutting-edge robotics and our innate need for social connection lies a fascinating invention: the social robot.

Moving beyond the traditional roles that robots have occupied in factories, social robots come equipped to understand, mimic, and respond to our social cues.

With a range of applications from healthcare to education, they promise to revolutionise our interactions and offer unique benefits. But before we delve further, let's take a look at:

What are Social Robots?

Social robots are a class of robots designed to interact with humans in a collaborative, companionable manner.

Unlike industrial robots that perform repetitive tasks in factories or service robots that might vacuum your home, social robots are developed to mimic, understand, or respond to human social cues. This facilitates more natural and engaging interactions between humans and machines.

Now, let's look at what makes it possible for social robots to help us.

Interactive Abilities and Roles

Emotion Recognition

One of the hallmark features of many social robots is their ability to recognise and respond to human emotions. Through advanced sensors, cameras, and algorithms, these robots can detect facial expressions, tone of voice, and even specific physiological signals to gauge how a person is feeling. This makes them particularly valuable in healthcare settings where understanding patient emotions is crucial.

Natural Language Processing

Thanks to Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology, social robots can hold conversations with humans. They can understand, process, and generate human language in real-time. For elderly individuals who might feel isolated, having a robot to talk to can offer a sense of companionship.

Learning and Adaptation

Many of these robots are designed to learn from their interactions, adapting over time to better serve and understand their human charges' unique needs and preferences. This ability is instrumental in elderly care homes, where the needs of residents can be diverse.

Assistive Tasks

Beyond mere conversation, some social robots can perform basic assistive tasks like reminding elderly patients to take their medication, guiding them through physical exercises, or fetching objects.

Others, such as Dexie - a robot specially designed for patients with dementia can converse, sing songs, and even play games with those under its care.

Difference Between Social Robots & Robot Humanoids

As the integration of social robots into various sectors continues to grow, it's essential to understand the difference between social robots and robot humanoids. While their functions may sometimes overlap, there is a distinct difference in their design philosophy and intended interaction with humans.

Social Robots

Social robots are designed primarily for social interaction, although these may not necessarily resemble humans. This makes it easier for users to bond with these robots and prevents the uncanny valley effect, described as feelings of revulsion or eeriness that come from humanoid entities that closely resemble actual humans.

Because of this, some social robots feature abstract or cutesy, animal-like designs intended to elicit feelings of warmth and familiarity in their subjects, making it easier to bond with them.

Robot Humanoid

Robot humanoids, on the other hand, are designed to resemble humans and possess all the requisite characteristics, such as limbs and similar facial features. This allows them to work closely with humans and engage in tasks and interactions in human environments.

In addition, their human-like appearance makes robot humanoids more natural to interact with and can ease the sense of social isolation elderly patients sometimes feel.

Types of Social Robots

Conversational Agents

These robots utilise advanced natural language processing capabilities to engage in meaningful dialogue with those under their care.

They can carry out meaningful conversations, making them ideal for companionship or gathering patient feedback in medical settings. This makes these robots crucial in elderly care homes, providing residents with an entity to converse with, and reducing feelings of isolation.

Therapy Robots

These robots have been tailored for medical and therapeutic settings. They can be used to assist patients in physical rehabilitation, provide emotional support, or even help manage conditions like dementia. A famous example is the Paro robot, a therapeutic robot resembling a seal used to comfort patients in hospitals and care facilities.

Entertainment Robots

Built primarily for amusement, entertainment robots can dance, sing, tell stories, or engage in games. While they're fun, they also play a subtle role in social interaction, providing joy and relaxation, useful in elderly care settings or therapeutic environments.

Educational Robots

These robots act as learning companions. They can teach subjects, assist in learning languages, or help children with special needs. In elderly care, they can also play a role in cognitive exercises, assisting seniors to keep their minds sharp


Benefits of Social Robots

In an era where technology is consistently reshaping our social landscapes, the advent of social robots brings a range of benefits, not only in streamlining processes but also in enhancing human experiences. Here's a closer look at some of their benefits:

1. Eliminate Human Biases

One of the primary advantages of using social robots in interactive scenarios is their lack of inherent human biases. While humans carry a complex web of emotions, experiences, and prejudices that shape their interactions, robots operate free from these constraints.

The unbiased approach of robots ensures fair and neutral interactions, eliminating the potential for discrimination, favouritism, or unintended emotional responses during interviews, therapy, or customer service.

2. Increased Engagement with End Users

Interaction with social robots is often intuitive, consistently energetic, and devoid of distractions or mood fluctuations common in human-to-human engagements.

This allows social robots to engage with their charges and keep them entertained for extended periods. It also benefits caretakers by freeing up valuable time, allowing them to focus on other critical tasks, and reducing the stress of constant supervision.

As a result, end users often find themselves more engaged, more listened to, and more focused during their interactions with these robots.

3. Emotional Support

Loneliness and isolation can significantly impact an individual's mental well-being, especially among older people.

With their consistent presence and interactive abilities, social robots offer a sense of companionship. They can engage in conversations, respond to emotional cues, and provide a comforting presence, helping alleviate feelings of loneliness.

For example, Dexie, a humanoid social robot, has been successfully deployed at a care home in Singapore, where it is used to keep residents company and stimulate them with various activities.

4. Consistent Performance in Repetitive Social Settings

Humans, by nature, are susceptible to fatigue, mood variations, and distractions. This can affect the quality of repeated social interactions over time.

In contrast, social robots maintain a consistent performance level, irrespective of the number of interactions they've had.

Whether it's the first greeting of the day or the hundredth, the energy and accuracy remain constant, ensuring every individual receives the same quality of interaction.

5. Understand Users Better

Beyond their interactive capabilities, social robots have advanced data capture and analytics tools. Every interaction provides insights into user behaviour, preferences, and feedback. Over time, this data paints a comprehensive picture of the user's needs and areas for improvement.

Healthcare professionals, educators, or caregivers can then leverage this information to tailor their offerings for a more personalised and effective approach.

6. Improved Therapy Outcomes

Recent studies have showcased the efficacy of social robots in enhancing patient recovery. For instance, social robots like Dexie can provide therapeutic support to elderly patients in care homes. It does this by comforting patients through conversation, singing songs with them and even playing games.

According to researchers, continued social interventions can help reduce anxiety levels in dementia patients while improving sociability. This significantly raises the mental health of patients and paves the way for better therapy outcomes.

Closing Thoughts

The emergence of social robots marks a significant stride in the realm of technology's symbiotic relationship with humans. Their ability to interact on a social level, comprehend emotions, and offer consistent support showcases their vast potential.

Whether in the corridors of an elderly care home, the therapy rooms of hospitals, or educational institutions, social robots are set to become an integral part of our lives.

By bridging the gap between the mechanical and the emotional, they not only reshape our understanding of robotics but also offer a brighter, more interactive future for individuals, especially the elderly and those needing therapeutic or emotional support.


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