Robotic Psychology

The idea of working with robots in a social capacity is one that is of science fiction movies and dreams—until it isn’t. The future is present. Robots are being used today in more and more social applications and are gaining acceptance as humans see the benefits of working with them.

It’s not surprising that there may be a rash of robophobia as robots become ever-present in our lives, but it is also the case that our robotic counterparts can alleviate human suffering. Robots are being used for surgery, transportation and entertainment—to name just a few of their many uses—but the most coveted interactions are with the human psyche. We are skeptical of these new interactions and also somewhat curious about the intersection of human and robotic relationships. This is a tremendous paradigm shift for humans. A significant example illustrating how humans have conceptualized the interface with robots is in the way Maslow’s hierarchy (from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”) has been recreated for robotic needs. It is significant because humans are projecting human needs onto something that has no human-like existence, and yet they have taken the time to imagine the concerns and needs of robots and to see them as reflections of their own needs; in short, humans are thinking about bringing robots to a life-like existence—or, at the very least, beginning to conceptualize that notion. The idea of anthropomorphic robots and humans having profound psychological interactions is nevertheless still frightening, but despite the underlying concerns—not to mention curiosity—social robotics is emerging as a broad field that will have an immense impact. Undoubtedly, social robotics can help alleviate the symptoms of conditions humans are born with as well as those they may develop throughout the course of their life Thanks to these machines, we are on the cusp of wondrous things for humans.The following sets out some of the possibilities from social robotics.


Social Robotics Impact

Eliciting social interaction from individuals with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, autism or dementia is both difficult for the individual and their families. From what is known about these conditions, it can only be said that vast benefits will be gained from the social use of robotics. There are already a number of robots on the market that can assist people with autism to develop their ability for social interaction and relieve their anxieties. Having direct eye contact with an autistic individual is a tough reward for parents and teachers to achieve. When working with a student with autism, the times when eye contact is made creates a sense of having broken through to another level of communication. People long for that social connection with their loved ones, and when it happens it is a great reward, both for people with these socially isolating conditions and those without them. This is where social robotics can be a conduit. Academics and researchers have found improved communication among those with poor communication skills and mindsets, especially children, when they interact with robots. As Park et al. (2017, p. 8) have observed, “Social robots have the potential to open new methods for how to assess and develop effective interventions that broadly serve children’s learning skills, attitudes, and abilities.”

In many ways, robots can elicit improved communication skills among humans, alleviate anxieties, and improve quality of life. In particular, people with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia can benefit from social robotics. For example, a study by Robinson, Macdonald, Kerse, and Broadbent (2013) found that loneliness felt by the elderly was alleviated by a social robot—in this case by a robotic seal named Paro. The action of sitting with Paro while stroking his fur brought them peace and reduced anxiety. This research, which is among the first of its kind, calls for more studies to be carried out, based on larger sample populations and broader experimentation.


In this writer’s opinion, the need to address anxiety in all its forms must be a primary aim of social robotics. Anxiety is a common symptom among sufferers of Alzheimer’s, autism and dementia, as well as other conditions, and is also prevalent in the general population. Perhaps by targeting anxiety, and seeing the benefits, we will come to a point where we humans are willing to accept machines as a help and not a hindrance. When we hear the term “robotic therapy” we may picture a robot lying on a couch with a highly paid psychotherapist asking how it feels! However, the science and research are giving a very different picture where robots are now being used to alleviate anxiety and improve quality of life. The market is also ushering in our robotic friends. In his article about the social impact of robots, Marselis (2016) suggests that we will see more growth (and also failure) in the social and business sectors; however, the failures will breed progress. Where there is money and happiness to be made, economics and quality of life will also be catalysts for social robotics…

This has been an excerpt from the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of the Age of Robots magazine.