Cody, a robot in Charlie Kemp’s Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech, was used in a study testing how subjects responded to being touched by a robot in a healthcare setting. In this initial test, researchers found that the subjects’ perception of Cody’s intent made a significant difference in how they responded. In this photo, Cody sports new Xbox 360 Kinect headgear, gear that he didn’t have in the initial study. Credit: Rob Felt/Georgia Tech
For people, being touched can initiate many different reactions from comfort
to discomfort, from intimacy to aggression. But how might people react if they
were touched by a robot? In an initial study, researchers at the Georgia
Institute of Technology found people generally had a positive response toward
being touched by a robotic nurse, but that their perception of the robot’s
intent made a significant difference.
“What we found was that how people perceived the intent of the robot was
really important to how they responded. So, even though the robot touched
people in the same way, if people thought the robot was doing that to clean
them, versus doing that to comfort them, it made a significant difference in
the way they responded and whether they found that contact favorable or not,”
said Charlie Kemp, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of
Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory Univ.
In the study, researchers looked at how people responded when a robotic
nurse, known as Cody, touched and wiped a person’s forearm. Although Cody
touched the subjects the same way, they reacted more positively when they
believed Cody intended to clean their arm versus when they believed Cody
intended to comfort them.
These results echo similar studies done with nurses.
“There have been studies of nurses and they’ve looked at how people respond
to physical contact with nurses,” said Kemp, who is also an adjunct professor
in Georgia Tech’s College
of Computing. “And they
found that, in general, if people interpreted the touch of the nurse as being
instrumental, as being important to the task, then people were OK with it. But
if people interpreted the touch as being to provide comfort…people were not so
comfortable with that.”
In addition, Kemp and his research team tested whether people responded more
favorably when the robot verbally indicated that it was about to touch them
versus touching them without saying anything.
“The results suggest that people preferred when the robot did not actually
give them the warning,” said Tiffany Chen, doctoral student at Georgia Tech.
“We think this might be because they were startled when the robot started
speaking, but the results are generally inconclusive.”
Since many useful tasks require that a robot touch a person, the team
believes that future research should investigate ways to make robot touch more
acceptable to people, especially in healthcare. Many important healthcare
tasks, such as wound dressing and assisting with hygiene, would require a
robotic nurse to touch the patient’s body,
“If we want robots to be successful in healthcare, we’re going to need to
think about how do we make those robots communicate their intention and how do
people interpret the intentions of the robot,” added Kemp. “And I think people
haven’t been as focused on that until now. Primarily people have been focused
on how can we make the robot safe, how can we make it do its task effectively.
But that’s not going to be enough if we actually want these robots out there
helping people in the real world.”