Robots in healthcare: Curse or Cure?

 Marloes SpekmanBy Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Mrs. Johnson stares out the window. She keeps hoping her children will show up for an unexpected visit, although that rarely happens nowadays. Some days, Mrs. Johnson only sees Jenny from home care. And to Mrs. Johnson’s regret, Jenny never has time for a cup of coffee. Her children, all of whom try to balance a 40-hour work week and raising children, usually visit her twice a month on Sundays, if they’re not too busy that is. She cannot help but feel neglected, especially because she was always there for the kids when they were little. “Mrs. Johnson, would you like some coffee?” a voice speaks. Mrs. Johnson looks up – where did that voice come from? A small, human-looking robot approaches her. Mrs. Johnson closes her eyes, folds her hands and prays the creature will be gone by the time she opens her eyes again…

When I tell people I do research on healthcare robots, I often get negative reactions. Many people are appalled by the idea of their (grand)parents being taken care of by a robot: “What a ridiculous idea! Robots for physical labor are okay, but you really need a human for social tasks. There are plenty of unemployed people!!!”[1]  Why do robots instill such negative reactions? Are we afraid that they will take our place, as is often suggested in newspaper headlines (e.g., “Will Robots Take Your Job?” and “The cute robot that may eventually take your job”)? Or is there something else going on? In this blog, I explain why we are afraid and shed some light on how (un)realistic this fear of robots actually is.

One of the explanations of our fear of robots is the so-called uncanny valley (Mori, 1970). According to Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori, we get an uncanny or eerie feeling when robots look a bit like humans, but do not look and behave human-like enough to be assessed as human. Suppose that you think a person is standing a few meters away. After looking at the person for a while, his/her movements appear unnatural and start to creep you out. Only when you get closer you figure out that the person was in fact a robot. This is exactly what the uncanny valley entails; the robot looks human enough from a distance, but creates an uncanny feeling because of its unnatural behavior. To avoid these feelings, robots need to be designed such that their looks and behavior match: The robot is either approached as human, or clearly approached as a robot (and not somewhere in between).

Another explanation for our fear of robots may be that we are afraid that they will one day take over, or that they will, somehow, evolve beyond our control. This concept is often referred to as singularity. It assumes that, once we build a robot that is more intelligent than the human kind, this robot will start to develop even better robots and artificial intelligence, at which point us humans no longer have control over those robots (Vinge, 1993). In the end, this could lead to dystopian scenarios such as those seen in the Matrix – where the machines use ‘hibernating’ humans as energy source – or I, Robot – where robots start locking people up as the robots have become overzealous in their job of protecting humans. Some scientists suspect that singularity will take place somewhere between 5 and 100 years from now, although other scientists, such as psychologist Steve Pinker, do not believe in the concept of singularity at all: “There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible.”

So how realistic is this fear of robots? Most robots currently being developed are only able to do a single thing really well. For instance, Roomba is really good at vacuuming, but is unable to bring you a cold beverage on a sunny day. Robotic seal Paro is really cuddly, and invitating for social interaction (either with Paro, or about Paro with other people around you), but it cannot do much else. For instance, Paro cannot decide for itself to go to the neighbor because it is unable to move independently. And the Japanese robot Ri-man is great at lifting patients, but it will not remind you of your upcoming appointments or that you have to take your medication. Many different kinds of robots already exist, but thus far none of them can do all of the tasks we would want, need, or even fear that robots could do. This is due to the enormous complexities that are involved in the integration of different robotic systems. Social robots in particular seem to be hard to create, as most of these robots currently can only do pre-programmed interactions or are secretly controlled by a human (a research technique often referred to as Wizard of Oz).

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Even though robots can currently only do so much, most people still have extreme expectations of new technologies such as robots – either positive or negative. Many of these expectations turn out to be unrealistic after people get the chance to   see the technology with their own eyes or, better yet, experience it for themselves. The same happened with cars; even though they were first seen as extremely dangerous and legislation required a person with a red flag to walk in front of every vehicle to signal its arrival, they now are considered indispensable. So, rather than panic about what the future might bring, we should inform ourselves about what’s already here[2]!

“Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Johnson?” Mrs. Johnson turns around and recognizes her home robot Alice. It has only been a few weeks since Mrs. Johnson was first introduced to Alice, but she already grew quite fond of her mechanical companion. “Ah yes Alice, coffee would be greatly appreciated!” Mrs. Johnson replies. “You know what Alice”, she adds, “Just sit down, I will make some myself!”

References

Mori, M. (1970). The uncanny valley. Energy, 7(4): 33-35.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Vision-21: Interdisciplinary science and engineering in the era of cyberspace, 11-22. Retrieved on October 26th, 2015 from: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html

[1] This is an actual message found online in reaction to a newspaper article about healthcare robots that appeared in the Dutch newspaper Metro in 2012.

[2] For instance, you could check out the award-winning documentary “Alice Cares” (“Ik ben Alice” in Dutch) to see it for yourself: http://www.npo.nl/2doc/06-07-2015/KN_1671620 (Dutch version).

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.

Coping with your PhD

Marloes Spekman By Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Most PhD students will agree with me that doing a PhD project often feels like an emotional rollercoaster. For instance, you step into your office in a good mood and happy to finally start working on your data analysis or any other part of your study that you really enjoy doing. However, at the end of the day you are totally worn out by the fact that your journal/conference submission was rejected and you did not get any real work done after you received that e-mail. To make matters worse, guilt keeps you up at night, as a little voice in your head reminds you that “You should have been working on your project tonight! Your roommate is making much more progress on his/her project than you!”

As I have experienced quite a few emotional highs and lows since the start of my project, I have been looking everywhere for advice on how to cope with these PhD-related emotions. Over the years, I have talked to many people about it, participated in a variety of workshops and courses (such as the course “PhD Success and Personal Efficacy”, and workshops like “increase your confidence as a researcher[1]” and “happiness booster[2]”), and read quite a lot about it on the Internet and social media[3].

To keep you sane, here are a few points of advice that I got from these talks, courses and workshops which have helped me cope with my project thus far:

  • Ask yourself: Does obtaining a PhD degree make you a (morally) better person? Does a degree define you as a person?
    If you said yes to these questions, you either put too much pressure on yourself, or you don’t really struggle with these emotions as you are very motivated to devote your time to your PhD (which is awesome of course, as long as it makes you happy!).
    If you said no to these questions, you should probably not be working on your PhD 24/7, and you certainly should not feel guilty about mindlessly watching television at night after a day at the office, or devoting time to other activities that are important to you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other PhD students.
    No PhD project is the same, and every PhD student is different in terms of ambitions, norms, skills, and productivity. If your office roommate often works at night and appears to eat, sleep, and breathe his/her research, that does not mean you have to do the same. Every PhD student has his/her own ways to be most productive. For example, I write best when I’m in the office with a little noise around me, while one of my roommates needs absolute silence and writes best in isolation. You can try out different things (including the things that work for PhD students around you), but try to find the way that works best for you.
  • Set small and feasible goals
    I personally find it difficult to read without getting distracted. My roommate suggested that I set a timer for 20 minutes, and stick with my reading for that 20 minutes (regardless of how much I actually read in that period). After 20 minutes, I give myself a 5-minute break and start a next cycle of 20 minutes. I have found that it’s now easier for me to accept distracting (and often unimportant) thoughts and basically say to them: “That’s okay, but I’ll get back to you in max. 20 minutes”. It has become easier to let it go, and the really important thoughts will pop back up after the 20 minutes. Since I use this method, reading has become much less of a hurdle. This also works for writing: instead of putting “finish dissertation” on your to-do list, try to break it up into little chunks (e.g., “Today, I will write the outline for my first chapter”). Achieving these smaller goals will make you feel good about yourself, and makes writing your dissertation a much more manageable task.
  • Reward yourself and celebrate your successes!
    Positive emotions are important to build resilience for coping with future periods of negative emotion and consequently for emotional well-being (according to the Broaden-and-build theory; Fredrickson, 1998; 2001). Thus, it is important to allow yourself some time to experience these positive emotions instead of rushing through them. Take some time to enjoy your achievements!
    Celebrate the big things, but do not forget to celebrate the little things as well! Did you write an awesome paragraph, or a great blog post? Reward yourself! If you do not know how to celebrate, then think about what makes you happy, and do that whenever you have something to celebrate! (It does not have to be big – 5 minutes of social media time can also be rewarding ;-)) Did you achieve something big? Then celebrate this big times!!
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
    Even though a PhD project may, at times, make you feel very lonely, know that you are not the only one who experiences these emotions. Many PhD students are surprised to learn that the Imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here because everyone else is doing better than you – is very common among PhD students. Other PhD students at times also have trouble finding their motivation or to keep themselves from procrastinating. If you talk to people about it, or search for it online, you will find a wealth of information and tools to help you through the project.

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Experiencing these kinds of emotions as a PhD student is not strange. Even the most motivated PhD students (and professors as well!) have to deal with setbacks. It is part of the process. Remember, that you can do this! Just keep calm and write on (but take it one paragraph at a time ;-)).

 

 

 

Want to read more? Check out these pages:

References

Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of general Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

[1] Workshop by Robert Haringsma of the IVPP (Instituut voor Positieve Psychologie; Institute for Positive Psychology), organized by the Graduate Platform of Social Sciences in January 2013.

[2] Workshop by Matthijs Steeneveld during the 2012 PhD Day organized by ProVU.

[3] Twitter follow tips: @PhD2Published, @thesiswhisperer, and @ltrprmvrn (and, if you are out for a laugh, try @YourPaperSucks, @AcademicBatgirl, @ResearchMark, or @angry_prof)

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Marloes Spekman works as a PhD candidate within the SELEMCA project. The SELEMCA project focuses on the use of technology, such as robots and virtual agents, in the health care domain. Within the project, Marloes specifically focuses on how people’s prior emotions affect their perceptions of healthcare robots.