Looks matter: Robot well-being coach fares better when cuter
Could you imagine a robot taking over as your therapist or well-being coach? Turns out lots of people can. As long as the robot fits its bill when it comes to physical appearance.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge conducted a study in a tech consultancy firm using two different robot wellbeing coaches, where 26 employees participated in weekly robot-led wellbeing sessions for four weeks, a press release said.
The robots had identical voices, facial expressions, and even scripts for the sessions, but the robot's physical appearance significantly affected how participants interacted with it.
Participants preferred Misty over QT
The study found that participants who did their well-being exercises with the Misty II robot (Misty), who is a toy-like robot, felt more of a connection than participants who worked with QTRobot (QT), a humanoid-like robot.
Why? Turns out, as the toy robot looked simpler, participants had low expectations and realized that the robot was easier to connect with. As for the others, expectations of the humanoid robot didn't match reality.
Despite the differences between expectations and reality, the researchers said that their study shows that robots can be useful tools to promote mental well-being in the workplace. The results were reported at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm on March 15.
The researchers collaborated with Cambridge consultants, a local tech company, to design and implement a workplace well-being program using robots.
"We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world," Dr. Micol Spitale, the paper’s first author, said in a statement.
"We interviewed different well-being coaches, and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness," said co-author Minja Axelsson. "The robots were programmed to have the same personality, the same facial expressions, and the same voice, so the only difference between them was the physical robot form."
Toy robots fared better as expectations were lower
The participants and robots dealt with a couple of positive psychology exercises in a meeting room. As per the release, each session started with the robot asking participants to recall a positive experience or describe something in their lives they were grateful for, and the robot would ask follow-up questions.
After the sessions, participants assessed the robot with a questionnaire and an interview. They did one session per week for four weeks and worked with the same robot for each session.
It was noted that participants better connected with Misty. "It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations," said Spitale. "But since QT is more humanoid, they expected it to behave like a human, which may be why participants who worked with QT were slightly underwhelmed."
"The most common response we had from participants was that their expectations of the robot didn’t match with reality," said Professor Hatice Gunes from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, who led the research. "We programmed the robots with a script, but participants were hoping there would be more interactivity. It’s incredibly difficult to create a robot that’s capable of natural conversation. New developments in large language models could really be beneficial in this respect."
Participants still found the well-being exercises helpful and were open to talking to a robot in the future.
The team is now working to enhance the robot coaches’ responsiveness during coaching practices and interactions.
The World Health Organization recommends that employers take action to protect and promote mental well-being at work. However, the extent to which these recommended practices can be implemented in the workplace is limited by the lack of resources and personnel availability. Robots have been shown to have great potential for promoting mental well-being, and the gradual adoption of such assistive technology may allow employers to overcome the aforementioned resource barriers. This paper presents the first study that investigates the deployment and use of two different forms of robotic well-being coaches in the workplace in collaboration with a tech company whose employees (26 coachees) interacted with either a QTrobot (QT) or a Misty robot (M). We endowed the robots with a coaching personality to deliver positive psychology exercises over four weeks (one exercise per week). Our results show that the robot form significantly impacts coachees’ perceptions of the robotic coach in the workplace. Coachees perceived the robotic coach in M more positively than in QT (both in terms of behavior appropriateness and perceived personality), and they felt more connection with the robotic coach in M. Our study provides valuable insights for robotic well-being coach design and deployment and contributes to the vision of taking robotic coaches into the real world.
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