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New Emotional Robotics Living Lab will Investigate the Integration of Robots into Homes

How can individuals develop robots that they can trust and respond to as caregivers and companions?

NAO® and Pepper® in the new lab Credit: University of Texas

The University of Texas at Arlington has introduced a new Emotional Robotics Living Lab that will be responsible for investigating what the future will look like with robots and how they can be incorporated into the home in order to provide emotional and physical support.

The idea here is not to replace humans but to fill a gap. We are using theatre arts to design ways for robots to create bonds of trust and emotion with humans of different ages and improve their quality of life.

Julienne Greer, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Director of the lab, UTA

Greer and colleagues Ling Xu and Noelle Fields, both Assistant Professors in UTA’s School of Social Work, and Kris Doelling, Research Engineer at UTA Research Institute (UTARI), recently performed a study with older adults at an independent living facility in Texas where both the adults and the robot interacted using popular sonnets from Shakespeare. This study was funded with a $20,000 seed grant from UTA’s Interdisciplinary Research Program, and it discovered that after three weeks of interactions, there was a major drop in depression and increase in human-robot social engagement among those older adults.

We are now looking to make the experience more immersive so that the robot and the adults play out an entire scene of Shakespeare together, such as the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. We hypothesize that the more immersive the theatre intervention, the deeper and more positive the responses in older adults will be in regards to depression and social engagement.

Julienne Greer, Assistant Professor of Theater Arts and Director of the lab, UTA

The new lab will have two robots from SoftBank Robotics, Pepper® and NAO®. Pepper is a 4 foot tall humanoid robot with expressive, large eyes and lifelike gestures capable of connecting with people on an emotional level. Designed to be an interactive companion, NAO is a smaller humanoid robot.

“We want to look at what it means to have a robot in the room, and plan to use theater methodology to make that experience as engaging as possible,” Greer added. “Both robots are also actively used in the curriculum of the course I teach, ‘Robots, Digital Humanities and Theater’ every semester, which involves hands-on student/robot interactions.”

The lab has been designed with home spaces for older adults featuring mid-century furniture and also a more modern play space for projects using younger adults or children.

In a related project, Fields is making use of $10,000 she received as a UTA Presidential Fellow in order to study whether theater interventions with robots are capable of having positive effects on older adults, with cognitive decline or dementia, who live in assisted living facilities.

Our hope is that these different studies could show that our Shakespeare robot intervention can have a general positive therapeutic effect on older adults, and provide new tools for those working with them to reduce depression and increase engagement.

Noelle Fields, Assistant Professors, School of Social Work, UTA

UTA researchers have also been subcontracted by Georgia Tech to perform research on how to develop a collaborative relationship between a care recipient with a developmental disability, an older adult parental caregiver, and a socially assistive robot to develop engaging interaction that will permit caretakers to take some respite. UTA’s sub award is $108,000 and will be led by Xu, who specializes in aging, on the UTA site.

“We all know that burnout among caregivers is a huge issue, especially for older adult caregivers who care for a loved one with a developmental disability,” Xu said. “If we can create an atmosphere of trust with the robot and caregiver as well as care receipient, then perhaps the caretaker will have time for a respite and personal down time.”

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