High-tech Socialization

Is a Robotic Companion in Your Future?
The ElliQ social robot by Intuition Robotics is seen at the Venetian during CES 2018 in Las Vegas on January 10, 2018. The robot is a personal assistant aimed at the elderly. (Getty)

Robots that help maintain well-being are on the way.

Coming soon to a living room near you: a friendly robot right out of a movie, able to provide companionship and keep tabs on your health. It's not science fiction; just like artificial intelligence that powers personal assistants in phones and "smart" vacuums in homes, social robots are real and poised to play supporting roles in our lives.

What is a social robot?

Social robots are assistive devices designed to engage you and enhance your well-being. "A social robot reads your emotions and responds to them. Maybe it reads your facial expression or analyzes your voice pattern to determine if you're in distress or pain," says Dr. Samir Tulebaev, a geriatrician and robotics researcher at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The robots aren't intended to replace or look like humans. So far, social robots come in the form of a plush toy (like Paro, a baby seal); or a small tabletop buddy (like Jibo or ElliQ) with a tiny body, no limbs, a pivoting head, and a digital face.

Robots used in medicine

We already have robots that assist doctors during surgical procedures, deliver food to hospital wards, and dispense medications. And more robot uses are being tested.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Dr. Peter Chai -- an emergency medicine physician with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital -- turned to robots to reduce staff exposure to potential COVID-19 patients. Dr. Chai worked with Boston Dynamics, adding an iPad to an existing robot. It walked into exam rooms and allowed doctors to video chat with patients before seeing them in person, if necessary. "Patients were very accepting of the technology. And it minimized the time the doctor and patient were physically close together," Dr. Chai says.

His colleague, Dr. Samir Tulebaev, is currently testing bedside robots that help nurses check on patients. The robots are embedded in teddy bears; every hour they ask patients about comfort (such as pain levels and going to the bathroom). The robot texts a nurse if you need anything. "Studies suggest that checking on patients hourly improves patient satisfaction, decreases falls, and leads to less burnout among nurses. We're hoping the same will be true using the robot," says Dr. Tulebaev, a Brigham and Women's geriatrician and robotics researcher.

Experts say the use of robots in medicine is just beginning, especially when it comes to helping older adults. "Imagine being able to send a mobile robot into a patient's home to provide telemedicine and deliver medications," Dr. Chai says. "It enables us to think of different ways and places in which we can provide patient care."

Residents of a nursing home play with nursing-care robot 'Paro' at the nursing home in Yokohama city, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan Oct. 9, 2013. PARO is the advanced interactive remedial robot which was designed to stimulate Dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other recognition obstacle patients. Photo by Haruyoshi Yamaguchi (Getty)

Friends with health benefits

Social robots have the potential to help humans in many ways. A plush robot like Paro can move and produce sounds when you stroke it, seeming to develop a personality the more you interact with it. It's meant to mimic the soothing experience of pet therapy.

Tabletop robots do much more. For example: "ElliQ can help with the social aspect of living alone -- noticing when you walk into a room; inquiring about how you're doing; diving into conversation about your hobbies; playing music you love; or connecting you so you can talk to your family and caregiver," says Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of ElliQ-maker Intuition Robotics. "ElliQ will also focus on wellness, suggesting mindfulness sessions or walking older adults through gentle breathing, cognitive training games, or physical exercises."

A social robot might also remind you to take medicine or connect you to your doctor if it has permission to do so and detects that you're not feeling well.

Will robots help relieve loneliness or keep your memory sharp? "Any conversation is better than silence when you're living in isolation," Dr. Tulebaev says. But while anecdotal accounts of benefits are strong, "we've only had small scientific studies suggesting robots have the potential to relieve loneliness or improve cognition," he says.

Is it in your future?

Robot costs may be prohibitive. Paro, at $6,000, is meant for facility use; less sophisticated robotic pets are available online for less than $150.

Jibo and ElliQ are both in testing and unavailable, with no word on costs. A 2017 (now defunct) version of Jibo was $900; ElliQ hits the market in 2022.

But experts agree we'll see more social robots within the decade. Will we be comfortable with them? They're not humans, and not even pets. But many people who have interacted with them say that, perhaps surprisingly, they become companions.

This article was published by Harvard Health Letter.