Can Talking Robots Reduce Loneliness and Improve Mental Health?

For millions of people, the pandemic means spending more time inside and away from others. However, this can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and poor mental health. With few visitors and rigorous safety precautions, seniors are spending more time at home than their younger counterparts, at least until the pandemic subsides.

Even before the spread of the novel coronavirus, seniors faced increased risk of loneliness and social isolation. They tend to be less mobile, have fewer social contacts, and spend more time at home than others. That’s why scientists are so excited about Pepper, a new talking robot that’s designed to boost mental health for those stuck in isolation.

Find out why Pepper is garnering so much attention in the age of the coronavirus.

The Trouble with Loneliness

2020 will be known as the year of social distancing and physical isolation. 

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) shows that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. The CDC also reports that older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.

Isolation increases the risk of dementia, depression, anxiety, suicide, and premature death from all causes. It can be just as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking, obesity, and sustained physical inactivity. The CDC also states that immigrants, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals face a higher risk than the general public.

Talking to a Bot

No one saw the pandemic coming, but researchers in the U.K. and Italy have been working since 2016 on a fully autonomous robot that can talk to seniors and other patients. Now with people spending more time at home, their project is turning heads in the medical community.

Named Pepper, the bot can play music and other forms of entertainment using a built-in tablet. It’s also considered “culturally competent,” which means it can sustain conversation instead of just asking and answering questions like other chatbots.

The bot can move and talk on its own, so providers can focus on other tasks. The authors of the study say Pepper isn’t meant to replace in-person providers, but rather supplement their care. After all, Pepper has the time to talk to patients for hours on end, while nurses and staff often need to move from one task to another. Talking to the patient can be stressful when the nurse is trying to focus on more urgent matters, such as taking their temperature, updating their chart, or administering medication.

As part of a global study known as CARESSES, Pepper was used on patients in Britain and Japan, and the results were more than surprising. You may think of talking to a bot as boring, but patients who interacted with the bot saw an enormous improvement in their overall mental health over the course of two weeks.

Dr. Chris Papadopoulos, principal lecturer in public health at the UK’s University of Bedfordshire and lead author of the study, said, “The results show that using the CARESSES artificial intelligence in robots such as Pepper has real potential benefit to a world that is witnessing more people living longer with fewer people to look after them.”

For the researchers, the timing of the coronavirus pandemic was happenstance. Pepper has shown to be effective at just the right time.

Papadopoulos goes on to say, “Of course, we could never have predicted how relevant this issue has become today, where we have enforced isolation in many care homes and selective isolation for many others, which has resulted in feelings of loneliness. Our system really couldn’t have come at a better time to try and reduce some of those issues.”

However, the team says Pepper is just a prototype and more work needs to be done. Yet, if all goes well, they say talking robots could become the norm in elderly care centers and nursing homes in just three years.

Pepper also raises questions about the nature of caregiving. If a robot can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, what does that say about the value of human interaction? Artificial intelligence will certainly play a role in the future of healthcare, but hopefully we will still have the option of talking to a provider in person.

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