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Social distancing can be lonely, but robots can help

The robot revolution is coming, but not as you think.

With Covid-19 infection rates continuing to climb throughout the U.S., it's safe to say that maintaining social distance -- whether to return to work or to throwback cold ones with friends -- has been a massive failure. But a new report published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics, says that widespread use of telepresence robots could help solve that.

Robots have been a constant presence during the Covid-19 pandemic in the form of disinfecting drones or medical supply couriers, but this report claims that using these robots in our homes could combat four of social distancing's biggest negative effects and help keep more people safe at home.

Boredom is a powerful drug.

Sustaining social distancing -- Boredom is a powerful drug and it's driven people across the country to forego social distancing guidelines in their areas and to meet up with friends in large groups after potentially months of isolation. Facetiming or Zoom happy-hours can abate this urge to some degree, but the authors of this study argue that interacting with physical robots could do even better.

"Traditionally, telepresence robots have been viewed as an opportunity for robots to serve as surveillance and health monitoring tools in high-risk areas," write the authors. "We believe that telepresence can also affect day-to-day tasks to support appropriate social distancing."

The term telepresence in this case just refers to a robot that can be remote-controlled to carry out physical interactions for the users. For example, the Japanese company Newme has a line of telepresence robots that are essentially rolling poles with steerable tablet "heads" on top. At the beginning of the pandemic, these robots were used for socially distant graduations in Japan.

In addition to helping students roll across the graduation stage, the authors write that telepresence robots could be used to help people safely check on vulnerable loved ones, interact with friends, or even set-up telepresence play dates for children.

While some social, telepresence technology is already on the market, the authors write that new research still needs to be done to refine this approach, such as developing algorithms for more advanced personalization.

This tablet-on-a-pole, the Newme telepresence robot, could take your next vacation for you.

Addressing mental health challenges -- The pandemic has increased stress and anxiety for everyone on the planet and for many has led to worsening mental health of the past several months. This decline in mental health has only be exacerbated by the inability of people to seek care in person or to be newly screened and diagnosed with mental health struggles.

The authors write that using telepresence robots could help alleviate this burden by allowing users to receive a remote diagnosis or on-demand counseling.

"Socially assistive robots have been proposed as a mechanism to support mental health activities ranging from screening and diagnosis to supporting on-demand therapy," write the authors. "Robots may be capable of playing a role in providing in-home methods for monitoring the mental and emotional state of users, identifying those who show depressive symptoms, and connecting those users with professional help."

While teletherapy has been on the rise during Covid-19, the use of telepresence robots could help balance this burden while also helping users get help 24-7.

But the authors say the software under the hood of these robots needs some work before they're ready to help.

"To be successful, these robots will need to perceive emotional states; calculate when it is appropriate to intercede; and develop long-term models of behavior, mood, and affect," write the authors.

"[Telepresence robots] can support social and emotional learning, an essential part of early education, especially for children with autism."

Supplementing distance education -- Through the pandemic parents have taken on the mantle of not only working from home and helping their child navigate uncertain times, but also the role of a live-in teacher in many cases. This balancing act, which has disproportionately fallen on mothers, has left many parents burned out.

The authors argue that using telepresence robots as teaching and tutoring assistants could take this burden off parents and help promote more social behavior in children along the way -- particularly for children with specialized learning needs.

"Robotic tutoring systems may offer a viable supplement to both curricular and noncurricular learning for children that struggle to engage with videotelephony or to work in front of a computer for a long time," write the authors. "Furthermore, such systems can support social and emotional learning, an essential part of early education, especially for children with autism."

As with the previous two uses, the authors say that "more research is required to generate content algorithmically, assess user competency, identify ways of teaching social and emotional skills, and leverage embodiment to facilitate learning."

"The challenge is...understanding how to best introduce the technology into societies."

Economic recovery efforts -- When we talk about robots and the workforce the conversation is usually about how robots could potentially take jobs from workers, but the authors of this study argue that they could actually help people return to the workforce after Covid-19.

"There are numerous technology-based attempts to provide vocational training and to support job searches, including intelligent systems that screen job candidates, match candidates to positions, help with training new employees, or support training individuals on interviewing skills," write the authors.

However, while the previous solutions had clear support for why a telepresence robot may be better than a simple video call, the authors say that the path forward for robots in this area is less clear. They write that developing more realistic behavioral algorithms and "soft skills" for these robots will be essential to further open that door.

Long and short of it -- When it comes to the widespread adoption of this kind of telepresence technology in our lives, the authors say that it's not simply a question of research, but more importantly a question of how to effectively integrate this technology into our lives. This means we have to work on better understanding humans as well as robots.

"The challenge is not only understanding how we can best engineer robots for sustained operation in dynamic human environments but also understanding how to best introduce the technology into societies to maximize positive social impact," the authors write.

Abstract: Robots have a role in addressing the secondary impacts of infectious disease outbreaks by helping us sustain social distancing, monitoring and improving mental health, supporting education, and aiding in economic recovery.
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