Robots can be useful as mental wellbeing coaches in the workplace, new research from the University of Cambridge has found.
However, perception of their effectiveness depends in large part on what the robot looks like.
The researchers collaborated with local tech company Cambridge Consultants to design and implement a workplace wellbeing programme using robots.
Over the course of four weeks, employees were guided through four different wellbeing exercises by either the QTRobot (QT) or the Misty II robot (Misty).
The QT is a childlike humanoid robot at roughly 90cm tall, while Misty is a 36cm tall toy-like robot.
Both of the robots have screen faces that can be programmed with different facial expressions.
Co-author, Minja Axelsson, said:
“We interviewed different wellbeing coaches and then we programmed our robots to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness.
The study participants were guided through different positive psychology exercises by a robot in an office meeting room.
Each session began 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.
Following the sessions, participants were asked to assess the robot with a questionnaire and an interview.
Participants did one session per week for four weeks, working with the same robot for each session.
The participants who worked with the toy-like Misty robot reported that they had a better working connection with the robot than those who worked with the child-like QT robot.
The participants also had a more positive perception of Misty overall.
First author, Dr Micol Spitale, said:
“It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations.
“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.”
Although the robots used in the experiment are not as advanced as C-3PO or other fictional robots, participants still said they found the wellbeing exercises helpful, and stated that they were open to the idea of talking to a robot in future.
Research lead Professor Hatice Gunes from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology, said:
“The robot can serve as a physical reminder to commit to the practice of wellbeing exercises.
“And just saying things out loud, even to a robot, can be helpful when you’re trying to improve mental wellbeing.”
Despite the differences between expectation and reality, the researchers say that their study shows that robots can be a useful tool to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace.
The research team is now working to enhance the robot coaches’ responsiveness during the coaching practices and interactions.
Image: University of Cambridge