by Alejandro Huembes, Ajla Ibranovic, Sasha Johnson, Emerson Jones, Julius Jones, Alondra Juarez and Caleb Kinneman
A 2017 study conducted by the International Federation of Robotics found that South Korea, Singapore, and Germany are leading the way in automated labor. The study compared the amount of “robot” workers per 10,000 workers. The top ten also includes Japan, Sweden, and Denmark, with the USA placing 7th on the list worldwide.
When you think about what jobs are on the automation chopping block, therapy is not one that normally comes to mind. After all the therapy industry focuses heavily on human empathy and emotion, something robots just can’t understand. Progress is being made, however, as “socially assistive” robots are being used to help neuro-atypical individuals.
The friendship that BubbleBot provides may seem incredibly basic, but robots like these are important tools to teach and train individuals that may need extra help with social cues and skills. The applications for BubbleBot and other therapeutic robots are not only helpful for individuals needing therapy services, but therapists, social workers, and others in the mental health industry — that is facing a serious shortage of employment.
The US Bureau of Labor predicts that by 2026 the demand for mental health counsellors will grow by over 20% – much faster than other similar industries. BubbleBot and his counterparts will be able to take some pressure off the mental health and social workers, freeing them up to take on a larger number of clients and treat more patients. The therapy industry is unlikely to ever be fully automated due to the nature of the job, but robots can certainly help alleviate the load.
Children are not the only ones being helped by the robots. Japanese scientists have developed a bot named Paro, a robotic baby seal used to provide companionship to elderly patients. Paro wiggles and makes noises when engaged with. It opens its eyes when the lights come on and “sleeps” when they are turned off. Paro also responds to his name by looking in the direction of wherever his name was called from. These may seem like simple behaviors, but reports have shown that Paro is helpful in combating problematic behavior in older patients like dementia, wandering, and agitation.
Paro and BubbleBot will never replace a real, human therapist, no matter how cute they are. What they can do, however, is provide a reassuring presence 24/7 to patients that are struggling, and help young patients learn basic social skills. Consider a therapist engaging with a child with severe autism, teaching him or her basic social cues for a few hours a week, for years. Now consider how the same child interacting with BubbleBot can alleviate a serious amount of work from that same therapist.
Educational institutions should encourage students in both the engineering and therapy course pipelines to consider a career in robotic therapy – either as a developer or a caregiver. In the future therapists will have a team of robotic coworkers, ready to provide emotional assistance for a wide variety of situations. The robots will be expensive initially. More specifically, the Japanese seal Paro costs $5,000 as of 2019. However, the savings over time will be enormous, and more importantly the emotional benefit to the patients that need these services will be as well.