From K5s who patrols our local streets and parking areas to a host of bots which serve as personal assistants at home and on the go, programmable machines are increasingly entering our lives in new and dynamic ways. Still, the challenge of integrating robotics into heavily human-dependent labor such as retail and medical assistance remains a challenge.
A multidisciplinarian team of researchers at Freiburg University assessed the potential impact of robots in the area of physical rehabilitation in the future. The study, led by Dr. Philipp Kellmeyer, a neuroscientist in the University's Medical Center, and Prof. Dr. Oliver Müller, a professor from the philosophy department found that socially assistive robots (SARs), though already in use, by all indications will be used increasingly more.
As the world's population continues to grow, and with improved medical procedures improving post-op recovery rates and extending people's average lifespan, SAR demand will inevitably increase.
Beyond continuing the research and development process to improve the technical capabilities of these helpful bots, much attention, the team concluded, should be given to developing strategies for how to create a relationship between SARs and patients. Few of us, especially those who have gone through the pain and frustration involved in physical rehabilitation, would disagree that the rapport with a health services professional becomes the main factor in maintaining the patient's motivation.
Are we setting the bar too high for SARs?
Though SARs still serve as assistants in the rehabilitation process, not the main role, it is still crucial to clearly define just what that role will be, and what it will look like throughout the rehabilitation process. This is key as SARs assist patients in three different areas: people with cognitive disabilities, people who require rehabilitation, and ageing or elderly patients.
In a previous study titled "The Grand Challenges in Socially Assistive Robotics", a team of researchers classified the most important components for effective SAR design in six categories:
The robot's physical embodiment (including physical, responsive and cultural aspects)
Personality, which is, in essence, the main factor in achieving successful human-robot interactions
Empathy, which is a relative concept, is central. The researchers shared from their observations: "Machines cannot feel empathy. However, it is possible to create robots that display overt signs of empathy. In order to emulate empathy, a robotic system should be capable of recognizing the user’s emotional state, communicating with people, displaying emotion, and conveying the ability of taking perspective."
The relative level of engagement with patients, which includes verbal and non-verbal communication
Adaptation, which involves learning from an environment and quickly implementing lessons into the patient interaction.
Transfer, which focuses on long-term behavioral changes of the SAR.
Though by no means trying to build the perfect robots or a human replacement, due to the delicate nature of this work, it's important for those involved in SAR design to continue to have discussions about small to significant ways to improve the patient experience.
With a title that truly gets to the heart of the matter, the study "Social robots in rehabilitation: A question of trust" is published in the Science Robotics journal this month.