'Social Robots' May One Day Help Your Doctor

Meet Nadine. She says she's "completely self-aware."

Autumn Spanne
01 . 02 . 16

When a strikingly realistic humanoid robot named Nadine made her public debut last month in Singapore, the world reacted with fascination—and a bit of unease. Something like Apple’s Siri in human form, Nadine has soft, life-like facial features and relatively authentic human expressions. She can remember names and faces and even recognise and express emotion. Yet she never loses her calm, professional demeanor.

Meet Nadine.

Nadine is a so-called social robot: a robot that can interact with humans and follows their social rules. She is a work in progress. Everything she “learns” has to be programmed. Right now, for example, Nadine’s creators are programming her to grasp things with her hands. This will enable her to play games or retrieve items, important skills for a robot that could be the prototype for a future companion or health care provider.

“We know the robot is not a human friend, but it is at least a professional friend that is aware of who you are and what are your needs and can respond to them in a professional way,” Nadia Thalmann, Nadine's creator, tells mental_floss. Thalmann, whom Nadine was modelled after, is a professor and the director of Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

For Thalmann, Nadine is a glimpse at a future in which humanoid robots may provide personal assistance, social support, and perhaps even health care, particularly for older people. Nadine can already call for help if she detects someone has fallen and will be programmed to perform other care tasks. 

Will humanoid robots ever replace human doctors and nurses? Certainly not in the next couple of decades, according to Thalmann. But as the population ages and the current shortage of nurses and other care providers worsens, robots may, at the very least, assist with basic nursing assistance tasks—something that’s already happening in Japan

As the technologies are refined in the coming years, precision robotic devices will increasingly assist with specific medical procedures, including surgery, while social robots like Nadine may occupy supporting roles in situations where patients need a more human touch.

Other service robots have been programmed to take blood pressure and other vital signs, remind people to take their medication and send data to a doctor. That could help physicians better monitor their patients and intervene more quickly if the robot reports anomalies in the patient’s regimen or vital signs.

The trick is to combine the functionality of these service robots with a more human touch, characteristics that will make people more likely to interact with and confide in them, rather than being made uneasy by a robot that is both eerily human-like and yet fundamentally not—a phenomenon sometimes called the uncanny valley

Elizabeth Broadbent is an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She studies how people respond to different types of robots in various settings in order to understand what characteristics make a robot most effective at providing care—particularly to the elderly. 

With an aging population, robots could become especially important in eldercare. Broadbent’s research has found that some people actually prefer to have a robot looking after their most intimate personal needs, like bathing or using the toilet. 

“It’s embarrassing to ask someone to help you, but if you have a robot you wouldn’t be embarrassed,” Broadbent says. “So I definitely think there are some advantages in that.”

According to Broadbent, many people—particularly older people—feel less indebted to robots than to human care providers. Relying on a robot helps them alleviate worries about imposing too much on the precious time of a doctor or nurse.

“Some people say, ‘I’d like to have a robot because I wouldn’t be bothering the doctor,’” she says. A robot could take care of their basic needs, making them more relaxed about spending time talking to doctors and nurses about their health. 

Here are Nadine and Edgar, a less human-like robot, making small talk. 

Non-human health care providers may have other advantages over humans in those roles. A 2014 University of Southern California study found that people were more willing to share personal health information with a virtual human on a screen than with an actual human during a mental health intake. The virtual human could show empathetic responses, facial expressions and body language, yet the participants felt it was less judgmental than an actual human in the same role.

So perhaps the perfect health care robot of the future will combine the intellect, physical features, strength and precision of a human with the pleasant, if slightly detached, mien of a Nadine-like humanoid. It might happen sooner than we think.

Bonus: Watch Nadine's chilling cover of Adele's 2011 chart-topper "Rolling in the Deep." 

All images courtesy of Nadia M. Thalmann