Lauren Dwyer helped develop a theoretical model for a companion robot that could help people with anxiety

Photo: Sylvia Lorico

Helping people manage anxiety with robots

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By Sylvia Lorico

BB-8 might not be able to write your essays, but a robot like it could help you manage stress. Lauren Dwyer, a professional communication master’s student, worked with Ryerson communications professor Frauke Zeller to develop a theoretical model for a companion robot with potential to help people with anxiety. Dwyer presented her plan as part of her major research project in September.

The robot would not replace traditional therapy but instead, would assist in helping identify and manage anxiety.

Dwyer’s research focused on literature about anxiety, human-robot interaction and technical design. Using this information, she came up with a set of traits and characteristics that a robot would need to help someone with anxiety. These traits included mobility, the ability to communicate with a person in need through gestures and sound.

Dwyer developed an outline for how a working model of a companion robot would communicate. According to Dwyer, the ideal robot would be able to communicate with humans through “natural language, lights, gestures and sounds.” She also looked at how the robots could react to physical symptoms of anxiety, such as vocal changes or increased facial expressions.

To come up with her model, Dwyer studied three different robots: Sphero’s BB-8 toy (BB-8 is a robot in the latest Star Wars film), NAO—a humanoid robot made by the French company Aldebaran to communicate with autistic children—and Sphero’s Zoomer, a robot dog that can respond to voice commands and hand gestures.

Dwyer tracked the ways in which each robot could use a series of gestures or sounds to express human emotions, like curiosity or frustration.

While researching, Dwyer discovered there was little to no information on which traits of anxiety could be monitored so that the robot could recognize and help a person in need. She said anxious people display physical signs but, those are often difficult to monitor.

Her theoretical model did not include any specific details on appearance, but Dwyer said it was important that the robot be mobile.

“Panic attacks don’t just happen in the comfort of your own home,” she said. “They can happen anywhere so you need something that can come with you.”

Eventually, Dwyer may be able to create a robot that would assist in the day-to-day life of a person undergoing therapy.

“No one likes having a breakdown,” said Dwyer. “While looking for a therapist takes time and is expensive, I was looking for something that could tide you over between visits.

“It’s the comfort of having something that is non-judgmental. Yes, it’s good to let it out, to talk and to have that companionship but having someone there can be a trigger for anxiety.”

Of the three robots she studied, Dwyer enjoyed studying BB-8 and NAO the most. She found that the ability to control BB-8’s emotions through a command menu could help a robot respond to a person’s feelings. She said NAO was a “state of the art robot” which could have a conversation and notice when a person was doing something. Both were elements that she included in her research.

Statistics Canada reported in a 2012 mental health survey that 2.6 per cent of Canadians aged 15 or older recorded symptoms that are associated with general anxiety disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by frequent worry or excessive anxiety about events or activities. It’s important to note that the survey only covers general anxiety disorder. There are seven other anxiety disorders not considered the statistic.

Dwyer hopes that her outline, combined with future research, will be able to contribute to the companion robot field. She hopes to be able to develop her own working model in the future.

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