Editorial Feature

Social Robots: A Companionship Cure?

Loneliness is a better predictor of premature death than obesity, a new study has found. In recent years, scientists have begun to uncover the importance of social networks on health, noting that people tend to live longer in cultures where the elderly are more integrated into society and play important roles.

Image Credit: Cryptographer/Shutterstock.com

Humans are social creatures, and there is no doubt that social interaction is essential to maintain brain function as well as to physical health, as research has also shown that social support is linked with faster recovery times and fewer relapses.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Highlighted Our Need For Social Interaction

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way we interacted with each other.

Given the strong body of evidence demonstrating the vital importance of social connection for physical and mental wellbeing, the impact of the restrictions imposed around the world to curb the spread of the virus is being taken into serious consideration.

National lockdowns and stay at home rules led to millions being deprived of the social interaction that is necessary to promote general wellbeing.

The pandemic highlighted our need for social interaction that it was not a luxury; instead, it is a necessity. Data collected before and during the course of the pandemic has shown that people’s feelings of happiness and life satisfaction significantly declined, as did their physical and mental health. Some data has indicated that suicide rates of certain demographics may have increased during the pandemic, particularly during the first lockdown.

Robotic Technologies May Play a Role in Meeting Our Social Needs

It is clear that as humans, we have a need for social interaction to support wellbeing. Unfortunately, for some people, such as elderly people with few relatives, it is difficult to maintain sufficient social connections. This lack of a suitable social network may be substituted with robotics.

Over recent years, many different social companion robots have been developed by research teams worldwide.

While they are unable to provide the same quality of social interaction as a human being, these robots have been shown to have a positive impact on loneliness.

Why are Satisfying Socializing Needs Important for Physical and Mental Health? 

Loneliness and social disconnection is a risk factor for early death. Many research studies have produced data that elucidate the importance of social connection on physical health.

In particular, studies have linked isolation and social disconnection with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Equally, research has connected insufficient social connection as a risk factor for many mental health illnesses. Recently, scientists in the US named social connection as the strongest protective factor for depression, demonstrating the power and importance of fostering social interaction.

What Social Robots are on the Market and Who are They Targeting? 

There are a number of social robots currently on the market.

Pepper is a humanoid robot that can recognize principal human emotions as is aimed at enhancing social interaction in children.

SAM combines cutting-edge technology and human touch to provide non-medical care to residents in long-term care facilities.

Lynx is a doll-sized robot with avatar mode to allow parents to interact with their children when they cannot physically be in the same space, such as when they are away for work.

PARO, designed by Japanese industrial automation company, AIST, leverages the fact that animals and pets have been shown to reduce stress and promote wellbeing. PARO is a lifelike baby harp seal robot that acts like a real animal and has been reported to reduce stress.

The robot is aimed at helping those in scenarios where a pet may not be appropriate, such as in hospitals or where the patient is unable to take care of an animal.

Challenges to be Overcome By the Social Robot 

The main limitation of social robots is that they cannot replace the value of genuine human interaction.

However, advances in technology are allowing these robots to become more human-like in their interactions, and research is helping pinpoint exactly what human social interaction needs are to be more closely matched.

It is unlikely that social robots will ever provide social interaction of the same richness as real human interaction, but experts argue that something is better than nothing, and overall, social interaction robots have been reported to ease stress and anxiety to some extent.

What does the Future Look Like for this Technology? 

Currently, many more social interaction robots are in development.

In the coming years, we will see more social interaction robots enter the market.

It is likely that as our understanding of human social needs is increased, which may be encouraged due to the impact of the pandemic, these social interaction robots will develop to better meet these complex needs.

Continue reading: Synthesizing Speech to Make Robots Better Companions.

References and Further Reading:

(2021). The Top 12 Social Companion Robots. [Online]. The Medical Futurist. Available at: https://medicalfuturist.com/the-top-12-social-companion-robots/ 

Holt-Lunstad, J. and Smith, T., (2016) Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence-based patient care and scientific inquiry. Heart, 102(13), pp.987-989.  Available at:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4941164/

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Baker, M., Harris, T. and Stephenson, D., (2015) Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), pp.227-237.  Available at:  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691614568352

Kim, H. and Florack, A., (2021) When Social Interaction Backfires: Frequent Social Interaction During the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Associated With Decreased Well-Being and Higher Panic Buying. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.  Available at:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.668272/full

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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