Humanoid robots lend a helping hand to people with social disorders

Original press release was issued by the University of Bristol.

We have heard news of robots eliciting arousal in humans not too long ago. Physiological response to humanoid robots is the reality that we now face, but it may have uses on the other end of the spectrum as well.

Researchers from the University of Bristol, in collaboration with colleagues at the Universities of Exeter, Montpellier, and Naples Federico II, have found that humanoid robotics and computer avatars could help rehabilitate people suffering from serious social disorders, such as schizophrenia or social phobia. Their jumping-off point was the theory of similarity, which suggests that it is easier to interact socially with someone who looks, behaves, or moves like us.

They have developed a mirror game, in which an avatar and a player try to copy each other’s actions, in an effort to create an emotional bond between the two. The avatar starts off as a 1:1 mirror of the player to ease them in, and only gradually shifts towards contrasting behavior, at that point entering the realm of social rehabilitation.

Mario di Bernardo, Professor of Nonlinear Systems and Control from the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol, said: “It is very challenging to build an avatar that is intelligent enough to synchronise its motion with a human player, but our initial results are very exciting.”

The concept doesn’t sound unlikely. We are now entering the age of fully fledged virtual reality headsets going mainstream, and there is evidence that this technology has a positive effect on people who suffer from PTSD, phobias, some forms of autism, but also those suffering from problems with their eyesight. The news of increasingly dexterous and lifelike robots seem to be getting more frequent every year, and they show no signs of stopping. The trend of technology becoming a significant active companion with multitude of uses, be it entertainment, education, or therapy, is pretty clear. Of course, those of us who have ever read a science fiction novel, or at least saw Blade Runner, already knew this.

Still not convinced that robots could provoke genuine emotions? Try watching this parody video and not feel uncomfortable: