Researchers from the University of Cambridge conducted a study using two different robot wellbeing coaches wherein 26 employees participated in weekly robot-led wellbeing sessions in a tech consultancy firm for four weeks, according to official statement by University of Cambridge.
Interestingly, while the two robots had identical voices, facial expressions, and scripts for the sessions, they differed in their physical appearance, which affected how people interacted with them. Participants felt more connected with the toy-like robot than with a humanoid-like robot. This perception, according to the researchers, is affected by popular culture, "where the only limit on what robots can do is imagination." However, in the real world, it often does not live up to expectations.
Also read: A new blood test to help detect anxiety
"We interviewed different wellbeing coaches and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness," said co-author Minja Axelsson. In each session, the robot asked participants to talk about a positive experience or describe something in their lives they were grateful for, and based on that, it asked follow-up questions. After the sessions, participants had to assess the robot using a questionnaire and an interview, according to the statement.
As the toy-like robot looks simpler, participants might have had lower expectations and find it easier to talk to. Those who interacted with the humanoid robot felt it wasn’t capable of interactive conversations. However, despite the differences, the researchers say that the study shows that robots can be a useful tool to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace, according to the statement. The results will be reported at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Stockholm on 15 March.
"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."
"Our perceptions of how robots should look or behave might be holding back the uptake of robotics in areas where they can be useful," said Axelsson.
While the World Health Organization recommends that action be taken to promote and protect mental wellbeing at workplaces, the implementation of such practices is often limited by a lack of resources and personnel. Robots have shown some early promise for helping address this gap, but most studies have been conducted in a laboratory setting, reported Science Daily.
"The robot can serve as a physical reminder to commit to the practice of wellbeing exercises," said Gunes. "And just saying things out loud, even to a robot, can be helpful when you're trying to improve mental wellbeing."
According to the statement, the team is now working to enhance the robot coaches' responsiveness during coaching practices and interactions.