Personalized robot helpers act as motivator for patients

Robotic helpers may be the rehabilitation wave of the future, but they won’t motivate patients too unless they’re able to mimic human movements, according to new research.

A team at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University set out to test user preferences when interacting with a robot during a movement-related task. The idea behind the bots is to encourage rehabilitation patients to practice their therapy routines, while tracking progress.

Study participants were observed while playing a “follow the leader” type game with the robot, which would perform tasks like dribbling a ball or tracing a circle.

The results, published in October in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, found that human participants were likely to mimic the movements of the robot, whether they were jerky or smooth. Overall, those who played the game preferred when the robot made smoother, more human-like movements. 

Knowing how the human subjects preferred to interact with the robot will help guide future development of robots for use in rehabilitation, said lead researcher Shelly Levy-Tzedek, Ph.D.

“In the future, human beings may increasingly rely on robotic assistance for daily tasks, and our research shows that the type of motions that the robot makes when interacting with humans makes a difference in how satisfied the person is with the interaction,” Levy-Tzedek said. “People feel that if robots don’t move like they do, it is unsettling and they will use them less frequently.”

The study also revealed that human participants had no real preference of whether they themselves or the robot played the role of the “leader” during the mirroring activity.

“This finding highlights the importance of developing personalized human-robot interactions,” Levy-Tzedek explained.