Robo-Therapy: Can Cute Robots Replace Our Human Therapists?

Though it seems unimaginable, you may see robots instead of your therapists or life coach someday. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently carried out a study using two distinctive robot life coaches. The research, during which 26 employees took part in weekly sessions, was conducted in a tech consultancy company and lasted for four weeks.

The robots had the same voices, expressions, and even scripts for the sessions. However, because of their appearance, people engaged with them in completely different ways.

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cute robot therapist

Illustration: MilicaM

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises employers to take steps to protect and advance mental health at work. Yet, due to a lack of personnel and resources, it is only possible to implement these recommended practices to a certain degree. 

In order to compromise for the lack of staff, researchers from the University of Cambridge came to a somewhat extraordinary but brilliant idea – to introduce robots as life coaches. The rationale behind this is the fact that robots have demonstrated to have remarkable capacity to promote mental health. By gradually embracing such assistive technology, employers could overcome such resource barriers.  

With this in mind, the researchers conducted a study which involved a toy-like robot named Misty II and QTRobot, known simply as QT. During the research, participants and the robots engaged in several positive psychology exercises. Each session would begin with the robot asking participants to think back on a positive experience or to depict things they were thankful for. The robot then asked follow-up questions. 

Following every session, participants evaluated robots using an interview and a questionnaire. Who do you think made more profound connections, Misty or QT? 

Curious results 

If your answer was QT, you were wrong. The research discovered that participants who had sessions with the toy-like robot by the name of Misty felt a more profound connection than those who worked with the humanoid-like QTRobot (QT).  

The reason for this lies in Misty’s simple appearance due to which participants didn’t have high very expectations from it. This, in turn, enabled them to connect with Misty more easily and effortlessly. On the other hand, participants working with QT had greater anticipations due to its human-like features. These, unfortunately, didn’t live up to their hopes. 

“It could be that since the Misty robot is more toy-like, it matched their expectations. But since QT is more humanoid, they expected it to behave like a human, which may be why participants who worked with QT were slightly underwhelmed,“ the researchers explained.  

Still, in spite of the discrepancies between expectations and actuality, the research demonstrated that robots can serve as effective tools for workplace mental health promotion.  


We wanted to take the robots out of the lab and study how they might be useful in the real world.

Dr. Micol Spitale, the paper author 

Looks do matter 

In order to program the robots to have coach-like personality, the researchers interviewed various life coaches. In line with this, both robots exhibited the same personality, high openness and conscientiousness, as well as the identical facial expressions and voices. The only distinction was the appearance, i.e., the physical form.  

Though robots were programmed with the script, participants expected more interactivity from QT, the humanoid robot. Unfortunately, their expectations were unreal, as it’s extremely challenging to develop a robot able to converse in a natural language. Hopefully, the advancements in large language models (LLMs) may be of great help in this regard.  

The well-being exercises were still beneficial to the participants, and they were willing to converse with a robot in the future. The team is currently trying to improve the responsiveness of the robot coaches during coaching sessions and interactions. 

Cute robots to emotionally connect with people 

At the South by Southwest tech festival organized in Austin, TX, from March 10 to March 19, 2023, Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development Inc unveiled its latest creation, an adorable roller-skating bunny robot. The bunny robot was presented during a presentation called “The Art & Science Behind Disney’s Timeless Storytelling.”  

The presentation was a part of Disney’s attempts to develop robots able to “emotionally connect” with theme park visitors. By implementing motion-capture data, the bunny robot creates realistic performances and engages the audience. 

The robot has droopy ears due to which it resembles a bunny on roller skates. At the presentation, the robotic bunny came out of a box by rolling forward. It also displayed a variety of abilities including somersaulting and rollerblading. 

If you have watched Disney’s Oscar-winning animated film Zootopia, the robo-bunny will look familiar to you. According to the report, the robot resembles Judy Hops, a rabbit from the 2016 film. The name of the robot, however, is not known, as the team hasn’t revealed it yet.  

A four-legged rescuer 

Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed DribbleBot, its newest four-legged robot “dog.” The robot was originally developed in order to participate in soccer competitions such as RobotCup. However, its capacities exceed mere sports skills.  

Created by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Improbable Artificial Intelligence Lab, DribbleBot can reportedly control pavement, grass, snow, sand, and gravel. In case it falls, it’s able to pick itself up by implementing a combination of sensing and onboard computing.  

According to MIT, its skills would resemble those of humans, if we had four legs. The incorporation of cutting-edge robotic technology, including machine learning, onboard sensors, actuators, cameras, and computing power, makes this feasible. 

Kicking a football around presents an intriguing new set of difficulties for a robot. For instance, the friction of a ball and interactions with the ground differ from the way the robot handles the same terrain. Therefore, the robot needs to consider not only what it’s doing but also what it’s attempting to kick.   

Though it’s all cute and playful, DribbleBot’s capacities exceed fun and games. The robot could be valuable and beneficial in real life as well.   

As researchers elaborated, the majority of robots nowadays are wheeled. As such, they aren’t of great help in a disaster scenario such as floods, disasters, or earthquakes. The DribbleBot creators would like robots to assist people in search-and-rescue processes – to go over uneven terrains that wheeled robots can’t go over.  

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