Will the next generation of robots help us feel less lonely?

Man teaching a youth class using a robot

Written by Adam Tweed, Service Development Manager at AbilityNet

Loneliness has a huge impact on our lives and 85% of young disabled people say they feel lonely. Can the next generation of robots really help us feel less lonely?

We live in a world of convenience; a world in which technology has meant that we no longer need to leave our homes to shop, to eat, to be entertained. We chat by text and video and working from home is becoming an expected element of our jobs as opposed to a perk. We have a constant connection to each other that we can carry in our pockets. You would think loneliness would be a thing of the past and yet loneliness and isolation is becoming an increasing problem.

Loneliness impacts our mental health and the links to anxiety and depression are clear, but it can also impact our physical health. Dr Frank McAndrew, writing in Psychology Today highlights; “[Loneliness] …increases levels of stress hormones in the body and leads to poor sleep, a compromised immune system, and, in the elderly, cognitive decline.” We are, after all, social creatures; socialisation and cooperation, interaction and strong social bonds have been key to our success as a species; we gravitate towards each other in times of crisis and although a break from other people is often welcomed, there are very few of us who crave true isolation.

But what if isolation is not a choice?

Research carried out at the end of 2017 by the disability charity Scope, highlighted that amongst disabled people the issue of loneliness appears to be deeply troubling. Of the 1,004 disabled people surveyed 45% of working age disabled people are chronically lonely, saying they always or often feel lonely. Of the working age disabled people who have felt lonely in the past year:

  • 62% said they experienced depression
  • 58% said they experienced anxiety
  • 49% said they experienced stress

On a typical day one in eight (13%) disabled people had under half an hour of interaction with someone else. 85% of young disabled adults (18-34) reported feeling lonely.

Long-term illness is also a major contributor to the issue of loneliness and according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics “Those who reported their general health to be “very bad” or “bad” were significantly more likely to report feeling lonely … compared with all other groups.”

In the UK alone it is estimated that 72,000 children are missing out on their childhood due to long-term illness, either as a direct result of being unable to leave their homes or as a side effect of having to spend so much time in hospital undergoing treatment and monitoring. This is especially hard on young people at a time when social groups and friendships are so crucial and so many experiences take place outside of the classroom (sleepovers, trips, proms, and so on) and the FOMO phenomena is very real.

No Isolation by name…

No Isolation is a company that uses technology to address the issues of isolation. The AV1 robot is slightly shorter than a ruler,  has a camera, speaker, microphone, WiFi antenna, 4G connection, and battery and weighs less than a kilogram;  light enough to be picked up and carried around so can always be part of the group; giving an operator the ability to participate in their life outside of the classroom.

The robot is controlled by an app on a tablet or smartphone and through this app; someone who would previously have been separated from their friends and classmates can now interact.  The robot can pan and tilt allowing the operator to see and hear what is going on almost as if they are there, there’s even a whisper mode so you can make the odd comment you might not want everyone to hear. Without limbs, AV1 uses lights to indicate mood as well as intent; the eyes can indicate happy or sad, as well as a friendly wide-eyed neutral and white flashing ring on the head shows that the operator has their hand up. There is also the option to show a blue ring to indicate that the operator is taking a break from participating.

Harriet Gridley, Head of Business Development in the UK speaking at the AbilityNet Company Day at the Microsoft Reactor, explained that there were a number of careful design decisions that were made with a clear view to where AV1 would be used and by whom. She explained that the decision not to include a screen for example, was a very conscious one that recognised many of the students using these may not want to be visible to their classmates; they may be undergoing procedures that leave them feeling vulnerable or self-conscious, or it may simply be that they are in hospital in their pyjamas.

The first telepresence mascot

AV1 has also become the world’s first telepresence mascot making its way onto the Everton pitch allowing its operator; Jack McLinden, to realise his dream of attending a football match. Jack is a young boy who has been in and out of hospital care his entire life due to his disability. Jack has multiple conditions and complications; he is oxygen-dependent and a wheelchair user. AV1 was carried onto the pitch by the Everton captain Phil Jagielka allowing Jack to experience the sight and sound of the crowd from the pitch. A lovely additional touch was that the AV1 was placed in the middle of the pitch at half-time and Jack’s favourite song; On Top of the World, by Imagine Dragons was played.

To university and beyond

Jade Gadd, an eighteen-year-old from Darby who has a rare genetic condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome was the first person in the UK to receive an AV1 (that she has renamed ‘Bee’) speaking in an interview with Bloomberg, she explained:

“…when you’re used to the same metre by metre and a half window every day and you’ve been there for months, being able to just see the sky from somewhere else or the tops of trees, or a sign, is incredible. Or being able to have that chat in the car that most people probably take for granted … Now I’m trying to make friendships that I’m able to maintain with Bee; before that I’d end up letting people down quite often…and if I can’t do something, she can, and if I need assistance to be able to make commitments, then she’s there and she means that I feel like a more valuable person because I’m more reliable.”

Having a window to the world through Bee, Jade now plans to go to university; something she previously had not been able to consider.

What helps one can help many

So often we hear stories in which tech designed for disabled people becomes absorbed into the mainstream as people realise what helps one can help many.

The University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education’s Genomic Medicine Programme runs for a year and attracts many healthcare professionals; doctors, pharmacists, pharmacologists, etc. Due to the complexity of the subject matter, full attendance is mandatory.

During the course, two of the participants had given birth and so were faced with a break in attendance that would have resulted in them failing to fulfil the criteria of the course. However, the Dr Gemma Chandratillake, one of the course directors, speaking with Channel 4 news explained; “… I’m very aware of the ‘motherhood penalty’ in your professional career so you’re faced with the problem of trying to facilitate professional women to continue in their education, to continue in their professional career, whilst supporting them whilst they have children.” Two students on the course Quan and Neeta both had children whilst on the course but were able to continue to attend, to participate; ask questions, interact with lecturers and fellow students at a level sufficient to fulfil the criteria of the course whilst simultaneously being able to take care of their new-born babies.

There are now over 800 robots in use over six countries enabling students of all ages the ability to participate in a far richer educational and social experience. The little AV1 robots may be small and unassuming, but they are making a big impression in the fight for equality.


Originally posted here

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