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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Are artificial intelligence and robots the future of mental health?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 3rd 2008

two robot facesPet therapy has been gaining increasing attention in recent times to work with children on the autistic spectrum, emotionally disconnected adolescents and adults, and the elderly dealing with end of life issues. I've witnessed it myself with my own clients when I bring a therapy dog in and all of a sudden they get to experience being touched and often a smile naturally comes to their faces. It's often effective for creating the feeling of connection which is integral to our well-being as humans. I might even suggest to people to actually get a pet in their lives.

So what about those who are unable to responsibly care for a pet? These can be children on the autistic spectrum and the elderly.  Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology thinks they have found the answer.  

They created Paro, a harp seal stuffed robot that apparently learns and reacts to touch and voice. If you stroke it, it will remember and ask for more, if you hit it for doing something, it will take that into account and try not to do it again. In elderly homes they claim that people who have interacted with Paro have experienced more positive emotions and began to talk to one another about their experience with the new pet seal. Another interesting note is that stroking the seal has been found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and create a calming effect and a reduction of stress.

One thing holding it back from a mass market blitz is its cost of almost $7,000. But what if it was cheaper as it will be in the future? Could this be an effective way to help those who can't take care of live pets interact and cultivate connection in daily life? Can Robots really provide that? With children who are autistic, I think it might be more skillful to still have a live animal if the parents can take care of it. However, it may be skillful for those who are elderly and can't responsibly take care of an animal. When we think about it, people find connection all the time with things that aren't actually alive. People connect with inanimate sculptures, paintings, rocks, architecture, among other things, why not a robotic pet?

They already have created robotic cats, dogs, and other pets. This is a topic we will be wrestling with more and more as artificial intelligence gets better in the coming years and more robots hit the market.

As always, comments and questions are welcomed here. What is your opinion on this? What do you foresee the future bringing?

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

The future of robotics and mental health - Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Sep 6th 2008

Thanks for your comment JR (and humor)...very true, these robotic animals may be soulless, but the question lingers if the reports are accurate as to results of stress reduction and connection. Certainly after a while, the novelty might wear off and people in elderly care may not be connecting with one another as much around this animal.

For now, they're happening and more integration between man and robot is coming. All the sci fi movies that speak to the integration and interconnection of human and robot may not be too far off. Having a robo-pet is just the beginning. Right now, robotics are already being used to replace our hearts, eyes, ears, and limbs. How might it be used to effect our mental health in the coming days? Thoughts?

Robo-pet is just the beginning. This will be interesting to watch and debate for years to come.

Robocat ? - JR - Sep 5th 2008

I am a bit sceptical about this.  Robotic cats and dogs sound a bit ... soulless.  Will this sort of, well, robotic substitute convince even those with extreme cognitive difficulties as substitutes for the real thing ?

It might be better for care services and facilities to consider practical approaches to making the real thing available to their clients/patients.  Cats, in particular, require little in the line of "training" to function successfully as "indoor animals".  It has crossed my mind before that the resistance of residential care facilities, in particular, to accommodating pets smacks more of their devotion to their own convenience than to the interests of their patients.

Not sure, by the way, about your observation regarding the deterrant effect of the cost of the e-stuffed seal.  When I look at my vet bills, I am reminded of the cat-related observation, "Born Free - but now I'm Expensive".  Hold on - maybe Roboseal has possibilities, after all ...



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