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You might think of robots as unfeeling, and maybe even kind of cold, but some robots are specifically programmed to help people improve their social skills and emotional health. Here are a few that might make really good pals!

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Photos of Jennie provided by Tombot, Inc.

You might think of robots as unfeeling, and maybe even kind of cold. But just because they can’t feel emotions themselves, doesn’t mean that interacting with them can’t touch us emotionally—as you might know if you’ve ever tried to keep a Tamagotchi alive or put googly eyes on a Roomba.

And in recent years, scientists have actually been making robots that aren’t just for carrying out mechanical tasks, but are actually meant to help us with the ins and outs of social interaction. Now, the list of robots you’d want to hang with might be pretty short, but in some cases, robots can make decent pals! For instance, in a 2007 study, researchers from Japan designed a robot to study social interactions in autistic children.

The robot, Keepon, is small, adorable, and only capable of expressing a few things: It can show pleasure, excitement, fear, and the direction of its gaze. Even though the robot’s actions are remote-controlled by a human, the emotions it’s designed to express are easier for autistic children to process. Basically, it transforms common social cues into expressions that are simpler and clearer.

For neurotypical people, many social situations might seem straightforward, but they actually require you to juggle a whole lot of information—like facial expressions, tone of voice, and the perspectives of the people around you. For autistic children, processing all this information simultaneously can be overwhelming and stressful—which can make it tough to understand the nuances of typical social behavior. On top of that, the way autistic people naturally express themselves can be different from the way that neurotypical people do.

As a result, autistic and neurotypical people often have trouble interpreting each other’s nonverbal cues. But the study found that the robot’s expressions made it easier for these kids to understand social cues that came via the robot, and sometimes even clues that came from other humans. Even among people who are already confident in their social skills, robots can help strengthen social interactions—for example, by creating an environment where it’s okay to be vulnerable.

In a 2020 study from Yale University, researchers divided 153 people into 51 groups consisting of three humans and one robot. Their task was to design efficient rail routes using a tablet app, over the course of 30 rounds. It was designed to be tense and competitive.

While the humans were free to talk as much as they wanted, the robot did one of three things: It either remained silent, said something neutral about the task at hand, or somehow expressed vulnerability—either through a joke or a personal story, or by admitting to a mistake in the last round. On teams where the robots expressed vulnerability, the other group members ended up speaking twice as much, and they even reported that they enjoyed the game more than other teams. The researchers believe that, even though it was totally synthetic, the robot’s vulnerability changed the dynamic of the group.

It’s a lot like how a person might break the ice by cracking a joke—the robot’s little quips changed how players felt about the whole situation, and their behavior shifted in response. That whole concept poses some interesting possibilities. Like, if robots are able to change the way humans respond to each other socially, maybe a friendly office robot could help keep the mood light during crunch time.

For now, at least, it’s probably easier to leave that to your coworker with the dad jokes - HANK! - but the experiment does give us new ideas about what roles robots could play in our lives in the future. Finally, future robots might not just help us get along with friends and coworkers—they may also help liven up some of the lonely times that come with old age. That’s why a number of research teams have been working on developing robotic pets—like this one, named Jennie.

Take a look at this pupper and tell me you don’t feel at least a little warm and fuzzy. Go ahead, try. Tell me.

Robots like Jennie, which are a type of social robot, are generally used to care for people who struggle with loneliness or anxiety and can’t reliably care for a pet, such as people in nursing homes, or those with dementia. Robots like this can offer companionship—kind of like a pet without all the responsibility—and there’s also evidence that they can brighten up the social lives of people in residential and dementia care. A study from 2006 found that having a social robot active for nine hours a day in a nursing home was great for residents.

It strengthened their new and old relationships, simply because, no matter what people’s cognitive abilities were, they could interact with the robot, and that shared experience brought them closer to other residents and caregivers. And it’s not just their social lives that got a boost. Urine tests that measure chemical signals of stress in the body showed that after people started hanging out with the robots, their vital organs showed fewer signs of stress.

Meanwhile, psychological tests showed that residents’ overall levels of stress improved, too. And things kept getting better. Weeks after the robot was introduced, researchers observed that elderly adults’ social activity kept growing steadily.

So, it seems that maybe in the not-so-distant future, it could be time for many of us to invite robotic pals into our social circles. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! And if you like this video, you might like our SciShow episode about five of the most important inventions in robotics, which helped make robots such a useful part of our lives. {♫Outro♫}.