Is emotional support part of AI's future in healthcare?

MIT's Cynthia Breazeal is developing "social robots" that could help care for patient's emotional wellbeing.
By Laura Lovett
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Photo by Christopher Huang.

The uses for artificial intelligence have been sprouting up all over the healthcare field, from reading images to automating work flows. Now some researchers are looking to use that technology to move beyond the analytical tasks and move into providing a more human touch. 

“There is one view that we can allow these AI [tools] to deal with data and analytics and we let people deal with the caring, and the empathy, and the emotional aspects of care, which I think is absolutely critical,” Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and director of the Personal Robots Group, said at the Connected Health Conference in Boston this morning. “What if technology is capable of high touch engagement? What if AI was also social and emotionally intelligent?”

As Amazon Echos and Google Homes begin to enter the domestic space, the population that comes into contact with AI is growing. Children and senior citizens alike are are now engaging with the technology, she points out. This could make the technology ripe for new uses and a wider audience. 

Breazeal’s lab focuses on machines called social robots. 

“For me when I talk about emotional engagement, it’s not just about great user experience with technology,” she said. “It is about deeper human engagement to enable transformative change in people’s lives.”

Sometimes called the “fourth vital,” emotional wellbeing is key to health, Breazeal said. But finding innovations to address this element can be tricky. Breazeal and her team are working with Boston Children’s Hospital to implement a new kind of emotional robot to young patients. This particular technology lets child life specialists communicate with the patient through the robot.

“When we look at our data what we want to understand here is not just how the child interacts with the robot, but how that robot facilitates the interaction between the child and the specialist as well,” she said. “The more the child is engaged the more the child specialist can do for the child.”

The research team found that children who got the robot care were more verbal than their counterparts that got a digital avatar or a plush teddy bear. 

While this robot was specifically for a pediatric population, Breazeal said this type of social robot could be used to care for the increasingly large aging population. 

“With younger adults we see a stronger preference for the talking speakers but with the older adults what you see is quite different. There is a lot of engagement with the social robot. …There is this assumption that older citizens are intimidated by technology—they are the most open,” Breazeal said, referencing surveys done by her team. “Younger adults were the most close-minded.”

It isn’t just Breazeal working on robots for seniors. In June, California-based startup Embodied raised $22 million in Series A funding to support robotics platforms for improved care and wellness. Others in the space include Hasbro’s AI cat that reminds seniors to take medication and the therapeutic seal Paro, which notably made a cameo on Aziz Ansari's Netflix show "Master of None". 

In the future Breazeal noted that social robots could help a number of different demographics including the veteran community, supporting education for children, and aging care. 

“We have the world of design and we have the world of AI and right now those two aren’t built top of each other,” Breazeal said. “But these have to come together. So we, through a lot of psychology, understand how people are thinking about experiencing new technology. We can clearly go back with AI and algorithms and then we try to understand 'What is the nature of that experience and how does that help people to achieve what they aspire to do?' We do it in the real work and we co-design with real stakeholders.”