Robots as Mental Wellbeing Coaches in the Workplace
According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge, robots can be effective mental wellbeing coaches in the workplace. The study involved 26 employees from a tech consultancy firm who participated in weekly robot-led wellbeing sessions for four weeks. The researchers used two different robots with identical voices, facial expressions, and scripts for the sessions. However, the physical appearance of the robots had a significant impact on how the participants interacted with them.
The Influence of Robot Appearance on Wellbeing Coaching
The study found that participants who worked with a toy-like robot felt a stronger connection with their “coach” compared to those who worked with a humanoid-like robot. This difference in perception can be attributed to popular culture, which often creates unrealistic expectations about what robots can do. When faced with a real-world robot, participants realized that it didn’t meet their expectations.
The simpler appearance of the toy-like robot might have led to lower expectations, making it easier for participants to connect with it. In contrast, the humanoid robot couldn’t engage in interactive conversations as participants had expected. Despite this mismatch between expectations and reality, the study demonstrates the potential of robots as tools for promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Bringing Robots to the Real World
Dr. Micol Spitale, the first author of the paper, stated, “We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world.” The researchers collaborated with a local technology company, Cambridge Consultants, to implement a workplace wellbeing program using robots. Two robots were used: the childlike humanoid robot called QTRobot (QT) and the toy-like robot named Misty II (Misty).
The robots were programmed to have a coach-like personality, with high openness and conscientiousness, based on interviews with different wellbeing coaches. Both robots had the same personality, facial expressions, and voice, with the only difference being their physical forms.
The Results of the Wellbeing Sessions
During the wellbeing sessions, participants were guided through positive psychology exercises by the robots in an office meeting room. The sessions began with the robots asking participants to recall positive experiences or express gratitude, followed by further questions from the robots. After each session, participants provided feedback through questionnaires and interviews.
Participants who interacted with the toy-like Misty robot reported feeling a stronger connection with the robot and had a more positive overall perception of it compared to those who interacted with the child-like QT robot. However, participants commonly expressed that their expectations of the robots didn’t align with reality. While the robots were programmed with a script, participants desired more interactivity. The researchers emphasized the challenge of creating robots capable of natural conversation, suggesting that advancements in language models would be beneficial.
The Potential of Robots for Mental Wellbeing
Perceptions of robot appearance and behavior may hinder the widespread adoption of robotics in areas where they could be beneficial. Nevertheless, even though the robots used in the study were not as advanced as fictional ones like C-3PO, participants found the wellbeing exercises helpful and expressed openness to the idea of talking to robots in the future. The researchers are now focused on enhancing the responsiveness of robot coaches during coaching practices and interactions.
The study was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Hatice Gunes is a Staff Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.