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Why Robots Could Help People With Social Anxiety

New research suggests people with anxiety may prefer practicing with robots.

Key Points:

  • In a new study, people with social anxiety preferred working with a robot to improve their table tennis skills than with a human coach.
  • The research suggests that, while many people resist working with robots because the machines lack human emotions, those with social anxiety might welcome the opportunity for just that reason.
  • Continued research may point to ways that robots or AI apps could help people living with social anxiety.

A study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking suggests that artificial intelligence holds a promising future in helping people with social anxiety feel more comfortable.

Source: Pixabay

Researchers asked 100 university students whether they would prefer training with a robot or a human partner in table tennis. Participants were asked to consider the hypothetical scenario of a table tennis training center that offers either a professional human or robotic training partner that has been in practice for 6 months. People with higher social anxiety were more likely to prefer training with the robot than a human trainer and felt more relaxed with a robot trainer.

Robots with artificial intelligence who can play and train others in sports are a reality: A table tennis robot named FORPHEUS by Omron already can play table tennis with humans. The robot uses high-speed and high-accuracy synchronized sensing to remember and determine the other player’s table tennis level. It observes how the player swings the racket, tracks ball movement, and adjusts its response to the player's level. FORPHEUS simultaneously detects movements of the ball, player, and racket. There are also badminton-playing robots: Kengoro in Japan and Robomintoner in China.

In previous research on human-robot interaction, people have been less willing to adopt service or companion robots due to the perception that robots lack emotions. People also become uncomfortable with robots when they are too humanlike—the uncanny valley problem. The more robots resemble humans, the more humans feel that the robot is eerie or creepy. In contrast, this study suggests that people, particularly those with social anxiety, may be more willing to train in sports with robots than with humans, providing a helpful path forward.

Social anxiety can be rooted in fear of negative judgment from others and lead to more social isolation or avoidance of normal and healthy activities. The use of AI robots has the potential to help people with social anxiety access training. The use of technology to remove this barrier can be the first step toward more positive and less fearful interactions with others and encouraging a positive feedback loop.

This study is limited because it focuses on AI robots in the area of table tennis training and also is a questionnaire about a hypothetical situation, even though the actual technology exists. Additional research that examines actual human-robot experiences and their choices and attitudes about this technology will increasingly become important to illuminate the human-robot relationship. One can imagine how AI robots could be integrated into the traditional treatment for social anxiety and how such novel technology can encourage and support activities for health and wellness.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2021

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