Researchers at the University of Waterloo found in a new study that resistance to social robots is easing as people either experience isolation themselves or see how it is affecting others.

“This change in perception is likely because COVID-19 has caused people to pay more attention to the consequences of being socially isolated,” said Moojan Ghafurian, a research professor of electrical and computer engineering. “In the absence of human contact, a social robot can, to some extent, act as a companion and reduce isolation.”

The researchers designed an online questionnaire to measure how restrictions during the health crisis have impacted people’s lives and their attitudes towards social robots.

Responses from more than 100 adult Canadians showed openness to buying and using social robots has increased significantly among those who have been both positively and negatively affected by the pandemic.

And participants who reported high levels of loneliness were more likely to say they would purchase a robot for companionship.

“We never see social robots as human replacements,” said Ghafurian. “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.”

The study also found that people value human characteristics, including the ability to show emotion and recognize users, as much or more than technical accuracy in social robots.

Researchers are hopeful that changing perceptions of companion robots during the pandemic will help speed up their adoption, especially among isolated older adults, once it is over.

“We believe this positive change in perception of social robots could persist and that the effect may be long-term,” Ghafurian said.

Ghafurian collaborated on the study with Colin Ellard, a professor of psychology, and Kerstin Dautenhahn, the Canada 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics, and a jointly appointed professor of systems design engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

A preprint paper on their research, Social Companion Robots to Reduce Isolation: A Perception Change Due to COVID-19, is available online.

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