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Caregivers’ Little Helpers: How Can Social Robots Support Informal Caregivers with Monitoring the Health and Well-Being of Care Recipients?

Source image: Robo Garage

By Guy Laban Published 26.02.2021

Social robots are autonomous machines that interact and communicate with humans or other agents by carrying out social behaviours and following social rules attached to their role. These robots are often discussed as potential autonomous health and wellbeing interventions. Social robots can function autonomously in physical spaces and within social settings, can support clinical management [1], and hold great promise for supporting both caregivers and care recipients. These robots are already being applied in psychosocial interventions [2], in mental health settings [3], and as supportive robotic agents aiding in rehabilitation (e.g., providing cognitive training, helping with daily activities, and supporting the rehabilitation of physical skills and motoric functioning) [4]. Due to social robots’ human-compatible designs, autonomy, and mobility, here I suggest that social robots can very well support caregivers with monitoring care recipients' health conditions and symptoms.

Informal caregivers are often challenged with monitoring the symptoms and conditions of their care recipients. This is a daily task that can easily invade their private life and prevent them from having experiences outside their caregiving role. For example, caregivers may neglect external commitments or their own needs in favour of monitoring their care recipients and remaining available for them. It is uncontroversial that social robots do not (yet) offer the same opportunities as humans for social interactions (see [5]). However, their cognitive architectures and embodied cognition can elicit socially meaningful information and behaviours from humans (e.g., [6]). Social robots can afford valuable social engagement opportunities with human users when introduced in specific contexts and in a careful, ethically responsible ways [7].

A previous study from our group reported that a small humanoid social robot (NAO, SoftBank Robotics) successfully elicits rich disclosures from human users, evidenced by the information shared, people's vocal output, and their perceptions of the interaction [6]. This finding is in accord with several previous studies that report different behavioural and emotional effects when communicating with social robots, and that people demonstrate a willingness to disclose information and emotions to these. A future possibility that would further extend to the utility of social robots in this context would be robots designed to detect or infer critical information from care recipients' disclosures. Furthermore, they may pass this information along to further support caregivers in their role.

Speech-based interventions in care recipients' natural settings
A social robot could be designed to collect health-related data in a care recipient's ecological environment, monitor and report symptoms. In some cases, a social robot can even offer an early intervention in natural settings. This deployment of social robots would benefit from social robots' autonomy and mobility, providing a cost-effective solution. Small and stable home social robotic devices like ElliQ (Intuition Robotics), Moxi (Embodied), and Jibo (NTT Disruption) could be placed in care recipient's homes. So, they monitor their symptoms and their health condition (See Figure 1). These social robots are easy to operate, mobile, and can elicit meaningful responses from humans in relevant settings [8, 9]. Interestingly, after the robot Jibo (See Figure 1, top right) did not find success as a personal assistant robot in family settings, NTT decided to focus on Jibo's future healthcare and education roles. It seems, as following from this and other recent developments in home social robots, that these devices work best when are deployed within specific contexts, like healthcare, where they can provide nuanced solutions within specific domains in people's homes [1].

Figure 1. On the top left - ElliQ (Intuition Robotics; source: Wikimedia)
On the top right – Jibo (NTT Disruption; source: Wikimedia)
On the lower left – Moxi (Embodied; scoure Embodied)
On the lower right – Miro (Consequential Robotics; source Consequential Robotics)

Monitoring movement using a pet-like social robot
Another great example of a social robot that can monitor health and well-being of care recipients in natural settings is the robot MiRo by Consequential Robotics (see Figure 1, lower right). MiRo is a biomimetic robot, meaning that it is designed following visual and functional features of mammalian animal (with features that are influenced by, for example, dogs and rabbits). Since MiRo is designed to emulate a friendly animal (such as a puppy or a bunny), its functionality might not include speech-based interactions with humans. Still, it can nonetheless support monitoring the health of care recipients in different ways. For example, MiRo has been tested as a fall alert system for elderly individuals [10]. In this study, MiRo was used as a smart mobile tool to locate a person and send a help signal if no movement is detected. Caregivers could benefit from these robots in care recipients' natural settings, as they could assist with the continuous monitoring of a care recipient's condition and provide regular updates to the caregiver in real-time and in times of emergency.

Social robots as a telepresence device
A social robot can also be operated by a caregiver from afar. A social robot can be used as a telepresence medium providing accesses by proxy to a caregiver in care recipient natural settings. Recently (2020) SoftBank Robotics introduced a new telepresence feature for their Pepper robot (See Figure 2) [11]. This feature could introduce valuable opportunities for informal caregivers where social robots are both autonomic and controlled by proxy. Therefore, social robots might, in the future, be able to function as an intermediary in human-provided care by proxy, using their autonomous skills and embodied cognition to administer relevant tasks when needed. This will keep the caregiver in the settings of the care recipient. Hence, it will sustain the meaningful emotional engagement while also providing novel access to social robots' capabilities in these unique settings.

Figure 2. Pepper (SoftBank Robotics; photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash)

Social robots hold great potential for connecting caregivers with care recipients, mitigating some of the daily caregiving communication-based tasks by being in care recipients' natural settings. Besides, they are also already being successfully deployed in some of these settings. Social robots could monitor care recipients' health symptoms and conditions by talking to them in their natural environments, eliciting meaningful disclosures, extracting clinical meaning, and updating caregivers accordingly. Also, these could track severe changes in care recipients' conditions in physical terms, for example, by detecting if the care recipient fell or if the care recipient physiological condition changed.

Many caregivers report the rewarding aspects of their caregiving role. The involvement of a social robot in care settings can empower the caregiver, act as a positive mediator, and extend the caregiver presence. It will allow caregivers to manage their caregiving tasks differently and might reduce caregivers' stress and burden by knowing that their loved ones are not alone when they are not available. While social robots provide great solutions for care recipients, maybe these robots could also act as the caregivers' little helpers.

About the author Guy Laban is an early-stage researcher and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow, UK. Moreover, Guy is a member of the Social Brain in Action lab. Guy is investigating how caregivers and care recipients disclose their emotions and needs to social robots, and how these, in turn, can reduce caregivers’ stress and burden.

Would you like to know more? Contact the author:

Recommended Reading
1. Henschel, A., Laban, G., & Cross, E. S. (2021). What Makes a Robot Social? A Review of Social Robots from Science Fiction to a Home or Hospital Near You. Current Robotics Reports.
2. Robinson, N. L., Cottier, T. V., & Kavanagh, D. J. (2019). Psychosocial Health Interventions by Social Robots: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Med Internet Res, 21(5), 1–20.
3. Scoglio, A. A. J., Reilly, E. D., Gorman, J. A., & Drebing, C. E. (2019). Use of Social Robots in Mental Health and Well-Being Research: Systematic Review. J Med Internet Res, 21(7), e13322.
4. Mohebbi, A. (2020). Human-Robot Interaction in Rehabilitation and Assistance: a Review. Current Robotics Reports, 1(3), 131–144.
5. Cross, E. S., Hortensius, R., & Wykowska, A. (2019). From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human-robot interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 374(1771), 20180024.
6. Laban, G., George, J., Morrison, V., and Cross, E. S. (2021). “Tell me more! Assessing interactions with social robots from speech”, Paladyn, J. Behav. Robot., 12(1), 136-159.
7. Wullenkord, R., & Eyssel, F. (2020). Societal and Ethical Issues in HRI. Current Robotics Reports, 1(3), 85–96.
8. Deutsch, I., Erel, H., Paz, M., Hoffman, G., & Zuckerman, O. (2019). Home robotic devices for older adults: Opportunities and concerns. Computers in Human Behavior, 98, 122–133.
9. Wiederhold, B. K. (2018). Can Robots Help Us Manage the Caregiving Crisis? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21(9), 533–534.
10. Georgiou, T., Singh, K., Baillie, L., & Broz, F. (2020). Small Robots With Big Tasks: A Proof of Concept Implementation Using a MiRo for Fall Alert. Companion of the 2020 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, 206–208.
11. Lou, S. (2020, November 24). Feature Update: Telepresence Enabled by Pepper | SoftBank Robotics. SoftBank Robotics.