Chatbots are another way in which robotics technology is providing care to psychiatric patients. Using AI and a conversational user interface, chatbots interact with individuals in a human-like manner. For example, Woebot (Woebot Labs, Inc, San Francisco), which runs in Facebook Messenger, converses with users to monitor their mood, make assessments, and recommend psychological treatments.5

Will robots replace psychiatrists? 

Robotics has started to become an integral part of mental health treatment and management. Yet critics say there are potential negative side-effects and safety issues in incorporating robotics technology too far into human lives. For instance, over-reliance on robots may have social and legal implications, as well as encroaching on human dignity.6 These issues can be distinctly problematic in the field of psychiatry, in which patients share highly emotional and sensitive personal information. Dr Pransky herself has worked on films such as Ender’s Game and Eagle Eye, which have presented the risks to humans of robots with excessive control and intelligence.

However, Dr Pransky points out that robots are meant to supplement, not supplant, and to facilitate physicians’ work, not replace them. “I think there will be therapeutic success for robotics, but there’s nothing like the understanding of the human experience by a qualified human being. Robotics should extend and augment what a psychiatrist can do, she said. “It’s not the technology I would worry about but the people developing and using it. Robotics needs to be safe, so we have to design safe,” she adds, explaining that emotional and psychological safety should be key components in the design.

Who stands to benefit from robotics in psychiatry?

Dr Pransky explains that robots can help address psychiatric issues that a psychiatrist may be unable to with traditional techniques and tools: “The greatest benefit of robotics use will be in filling gaps. For example, for people who are not comfortable or available to talk about their problems with another human being, a robotic tool can be a therapeutic asset or a diagnostic tool.”

An interesting example of a robot that could be used to fill gaps in psychiatric care is the robot used in BlabDroid, a 2012 documentary created by Alex Reben at the MIT Media Lab for his Master’s thesis. It was the first documentary ever filmed and directed by robots. The robot interviewed strangers on the streets of New York City7 and people surprisingly opened up to the robot. “Some humans are better off with something they feel is non-threatening,” said Dr Pransky.

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For Dr Pransky, individuals who would benefit the most from the use of robots in psychiatry are the elderly, young patients who are online most of the time, and people with no access to any form of behavioral health assistance. “In the elderly and aging, there is a tremendous lack of human beings who are able to listen or provide companionship. Among people in the college student age, most social interactions happen in front of a computer, so the use of robots may be more acceptable for an initial diagnosis and to spark engagement.” She also points out the potential benefit in children with autism: “These are individuals who don’t usually engage with other humans.” Indeed, a humanoid robot called Nao (Aldebaran Robotics, Paris, France) is already on the market to help children with autism. 

With these early robotics applications in psychiatry it is important to reduce the anxieties people may experience with having AI-powered healthcare in the future. “Preparation begins with awareness, which leads to acceptance,” said Dr Pransky, adding that with a properly guided application of robotics principles, psychiatry will continue to be for the benefit of human beings.

References

1. Holland P.  Fur-covered robots are the new therapy animal. CNet. www.cnet.com/news/comfort-robots-aflac-duck-and-paro-seal-help-sick-people/. April 4, 2018. Accessed January 9, 2019.

2. Pransky J.  The Essential Interview: Cory Kidd, Human-Robot Interaction Pioneer and Catalia Health CEO. Robotics Business Review. www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/health-medical/essential-interview-cory-kidd-human-robot-interaction-pioneer-catalia-health-ceo/. Accessed January 9, 2019.

3. ElliQ. Keeping older adults active and engaged.. ElliQ. https://elliq.com/. 2018. Accessed January 9, 2019.

4. Axilum Robotics. A new standard for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Axilum Robotics. www.axilumrobotics.com/en/. 2018. Accessed January 9. 2019.

5. Molteni M.  The Chatbot Therapist Will See You Now. Wiredhttps://www.wired.com/2017/06/facebook-messenger-woebot-chatbot-therapist/. June 17, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2019.

6. Riek L.  Robotics Technology in Mental Healthcare. In: Luxton D (Ed.), Artificial Intelligence in Behavioral Health and Mental Health Care. New York NY:Elsevier Publishing Company. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.02281.pdf . 2015. Accessed January 9, 2019.

7. Clark L. From cute droids to robots that stab you, it’s time to get personal with machines. Wired. www.wired.co.uk/article/alex-reben-artist-robots-engineer. 2016. Accessed January 9, 2019.