Northeastern University researcher studies the use of social robots in mental health and well-being research

Picture of Arielle Scoglio
Arielle Scoglio, a doctoral student studying population health at Northeastern, and her colleague Erin Reilly, study how veterans at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital interact with a social robot called Jibo. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

At a hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, Jibo asks a group of veterans how they’re doing. They tell Jibo they’re in a lot of pain and Jibo reminds them that stretching helped them the other day. Perhaps they’d like to try it again today?

As Jibo—who is a robot, by the way—guides the veterans in a yoga exercise, Arielle Scoglio, a doctoral student studying population health at Northeastern, analyzes how the veterans interact with Jibo, and how receptive they are to talking to it and taking instruction from it.

Northeastern doctoral student Arielle Scoglio. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“The hope is to take that preliminary data to improve the programming on the robot and then hopefully allow veterans to take some of the robots home with them and test them out using them as an adjunct to treatment,” she says. 

Scoglio, whose research at Northeastern focuses on the social determinants of health, including, for example, how violent experiences affect mental health, works part-time at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital. She and her colleagues recently published a literature review that looked into how social robots—robots designed to interact with people socially, while also helping them to manage their physical and psychological well-being—are being used in the study and treatment of mental health and well-being.

“It seems like an exciting new technology platform that has the possibility for multiple uses in the health field,” Scoglio says. “Robots are used a lot in terms of being physical assistants, but as artificial intelligence is progressing more, there’s more opportunity to test out social aspects and companionship.”

At Northeastern, Arielle Scoglio focuses on the social determinants of health, including, for example, how violent experiences affect mental health. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The researchers found that while there’s great potential for using robots to improve the quality of mental health care, the field is generally unexplored. The research that does exist, Scoglio says, is largely limited in scope, possibly because “there’s not a ton of collaboration yet between clinicians and scientists who are programming and building social robots.”

In conducting their review, Scoglio and her colleagues focused on five different types of social robots that are currently being used in the field. Resembling a “baby harp seal,” Paro is a robot typically used in settings involving nursing home residents who might be socially isolated or struggle with cognitive and memory problems. Studies show that Paro has had a positive effect on patients with dementia, helping to improve their well-being and ability to socialize with others, according to Scoglio.

“He’s cute and he responds to touch and makes cooing noises,” Scoglio says. “They found that he can be helpful in calming people down akin to maybe using animal-assisted therapy. And just having Paro in the nursing home helped facilitate more social interaction. So instead of sitting off in a corner, they might all group around the robot and talk about their interactions with him.”

Scoglio and her team also looked into the effectiveness for people of robots that act as companions or as therapists. An example is a robot that can motivate an individual to pursue his or her fitness goals. The research indicates that there has been a positive response to these robots and that some people, in fact, have reported feeling more motivated to exercise after interacting with them, Scoglio says.

Another type of a social robot that the researchers analyzed in their literature review is a robot that offers information on demand, similar to Siri or Alexa, two popular digital assistants. This robot, which researchers have dubbed Betty, can perform tasks such as giving a weather report or playing a song. Betty was designed to communicate with humans, and have a calming effect on users.

Scoglio hopes that as the technology for social robots improves, the robots can be replicated in a cost-effective way, and thus allow people who struggle with physical or cognitive disabilities to use them at home. She is careful to point out that the robots are not intended to replace humans, but to enhance their social interactions with other people. 

“My goal in using these platforms wouldn’t be to give people who are socially isolated a robot to be their social support, but to help them use robots to access more human social support,” she says. 

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