COVID-19 loneliness is changing the way we think about robot companions

People have mixed feelings about robots. On one hand, they can be extremely useful. But on the other, they might take our jobs and do not provide us with the same emotional satisfaction as humans do. Scientists at the University of Waterloo found social isolation, enforced during COVID-19 pandemic, reshaped people’s attitudes towards robot companions.

COVID-19 made people think that robot companions may not be a bad idea. Image credit: epSos.de via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Lack of human contact is very unhealthy for us. Poor social relations are known to affect everything – from weight to cognitive abilities. And, of course, social interactions are necessary for us to be generally happy. COVID-19 pandemic robbed that from many of us.

Scientists created an online questionnaire, asking more than 100 adult Canadians to talk about how restrictions during the health crisis have impacted people’s lives and their attitudes towards social robots. Researchers found that people are more open towards buying and using social robots now that COVID-19 locked us inside of our homes. Interestingly, this effect was visible between those who have been both positively and negatively affected by the pandemic. But, of course, the loneliest people were more likely to consider buying a robot companion.

People still value humans more, of course, and would like to see robots to exhibit some human characteristics. For example, they hope that robot companions would be able to show emotion and recognize users. These kind of features are very difficult to replicate in machines. It is especially difficult not to make it look fake and ugly. Scientists hope that this study will encourage robotics companies to work even harder in this area.

But what about people? Are friends increasingly less important as people are looking for robotic companions? Moojan Ghafurian, one of the authors of the study, explained: “We never see social robots as human replacements. But there are some situations, like COVID-19, where people are deprived of human contact and social robots can help fill in gaps to reduce loneliness, depression and the other serious effects of isolation.” Scientists believe that the changing perception of robots would not be forgotten after COVID-19 pandemic is over and social isolation is just a distant memory.

Scientists see many advantages of social robots. They do not replace human, but still provide some companionship. They can be stimulating, reducing the rate of cognitive decline, especially among older people. They can reduce loneliness and depression associated with it. They can generally make people at least a little bit happier. However, there aren’t that many products in this area and scientists hope that researches like this are going to change that soon.

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