A robotic couples counsellor that doesn't judge

How a new humanoid robot can help couples improve communication.
A couple gets counselling from a humanoid robot.

Couples therapy has been demonstrated to be effective at reducing relationship distress. But most couples do not seek help.

"They don't want to divulge their problems to other people. This is particularly true of men in relationships," says Timothy Bickmore.

"There are also logistical issues of cost, time and childcare of getting to therapy."

Tim is a professor of computer and information science at Northeastern University.
Timothy Bickmore

To make access easier, he and his team developed a robotic couples counsellor.

"Our purpose in the study was to see if people would accept this. Would they actually talk about their relationship in front of a robot? And could it be effective at teaching them skills?"

Tim says that he and his team are not trying to replace human therapists, but trying to provide something to individuals who can't make it to therapy that's more effective than a self-help book or watching a video.

"We're certainly not trying to beat a human therapist," Tim says.

So, what exactly does this robot do with couples?

"A couple sits in a room and sitting on a table in front of them -- it's a little strange at first -- is a disembodied head," Tim says with a chuckle.

The robotic counsellor has a translucent face and can turn to look a each person.

It also wears a purple wig or a hat.

"The robot basically walks the couple through a half-hour long session in basically teaching them positive communication skills," Tim says.

So, how did the couples react?  

"Overall, very positively," he says. "A lot of them said that they liked being able to discuss their problems with a robot because it wouldn't be judgmental."

Tim's study will appear in this summer's International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication.


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