Robots Make Great Therapists

Advances in Robots Help in Various Treatments

By Frances Reed

Robots aren't just for play anymore. No, you're not about to read a review on the latest Transformers movie. We're not suggesting that you'll soon pay $200 to lie on a couch and talk to a robot either.

The challenge to create more life-like robots has motivated engineers, scientists and hobbyists and the result is that the humanoid capabilities have exploded in recent years. Technological innovations like voice recognition, adaptive programming (think Netflix), improved and more accurate sensor technology, and even cloud technology, are fast being integrated into robots. Researchers and designers are fast finding ways to work these enhancements into a variety of therapeutic uses.

Therapeutic robots have shown great promise in uses in autism, mood disorders, in-home care, and Alzheimer's treatment. Here are a few of the robots being used for therapy.


Keepon This oversized Easter peep was first used to study how children interacted socially. The friendly robot has eyes (two video cameras), a nose (microphone), and four motors in its base which can be remotely operated by a therapist in another room, or put on autonomous mode to move to music or surrounding sound. Using Keepon, researchers can objectively observe children's interaction with each other and the robot.

Keepon's simple yet dynamic design opens a space for human-robot interaction (HRI), especially in autism research, where over stimulation causes autistic children to shut down. The robot's minimalism is non-threatening to subjects and provides researchers an up close view of the HRI as well as the interactions between the autistic children.

Check out Keepon in action.


Phobot was built using multiple LEGO Mindstorms NXT kits with RFID sensors by students from the University of Amsterdam. It was the winner of the Human-Robot Interaction Student Design Competition. Developed as a visual aid to assist children suffering from extreme anxiety and phobias. The mimicking robot expresses fright of certain objects, and then demonstrates that when faced, these fears can be allayed. Researchers can manipulate the robot's expressions, simulate an excited heart beat and coach a subject through the HRI that phobias can be overcome.


Designed to be ultra cute and comforting, Paro the baby harp seal is used in a similar manner to animal-assisted therapy. Invented by Takanori Shibata, at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the robot uses two 32-bit RISC processors, custom actuators, as well as numerous sound, light, temperature, and touch sensors. Additionally, it has some AI capabilities, learning a name over time and changes its behavior in response to the users' behaviors.

As with live animal therapy, Paro is documented to reduce stress of patients and caregivers, stimulate patient interaction, motivation and socialization. This HRI robot can easily be administered in hospitals and extended care facilities where use of live animals may present difficulties.

This video highlights Paro's benefits at a nursing home with an Alzheimer's patient.


Aldebaran Robotics has done amazing things with the Nao robot, from winning multiple Robot Soccer World Cups to a robot doing stand-up comedy. The Paris based company is also putting Nao (pronounced "now") to use for assistance in autism therapy and a variety of caregiver assistance therapies. Typical HRI "fatigue" or repetitiveness of canned actions is avoided because of Nao's capacity to remember and retain personalized information associated with users, making it a better companion.

Children suffering from autism are drawn to technology and robots because of the predictable behavior and lessened amount of external stimuli. Nao can assist therapists and teach children with autism to understand behavior-based communication and gestures that are normally difficult for them.

For use inhome care, Nao has human-like interaction based on voice and gesture, making it able to play this crucial role of personal assistant, at home or in a facility. Tasks like dispensing medicine, heavy lifting, assistance getting in/out of bed, even responding to a call for help are already possible or in development. Nao also has experience managing subjects' special dietary requirements, helpful with health issues like diabetes.





Researchers have already worked one-on-one with patients and caregivers, focused on cognitive abilities including natural language processing, child speech recognition, facial expression recognition, and episodic and semantic memory. These HRI developments have been greatly aided by cloud technology in order to contain personalized memory to assist many patients.

Check out the highly developed interactivity of the Nao, dancing in unison as another robot joins in mid-step.



Popchilla was originally designed as a toy but it quickly proved an extremely effective tool for therapists in the autism space. Winner of the 2011 Robotbowl, Popchilla's parent company, Interbots, is looking to make effective autism therapy accessible and affordable. The iPad/PC software allows therapists and parents to work with children in social skill activities, check out Popchilla video details.

Non-human entities are often preferred by those with autism. This fluffy, floppy eared creature is being used in research along with the iPad application, to increase the understanding of the child's internal feelings, reduce behavioral frustrations, and aid in emotional identification which reduces negative, long term behavioral ramifications. Cosmobot


CosmoBot is used to help children with and without disabilities to promote educational and therapeutic activities. The robot's mood-positive design and demeanor provide motivation for children to develop new skills, such as communication, motor and social, more quickly than traditional therapy. Therapists and educators have tested Cosmobot's HRI with a range of abilities including children with autism, Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, apraxia, neurodevelopmental disorders and language developmental disorders.

An overview on Cosmobot's interactive, computer based therapy model can be found at AT KidSystems.

As technologies innovate at a near daily pace, the integration into therapy robots will parallel, (plans are in the works for Nao to be Skyped into group autism sessions). Studies confirm the building evidence that robots can be as effective, if not more, than human only treatment. Some autism studies, have reported a 30% increase in the number of social interactions, and better verbal communication in autistic children when a robot is in the same room. Issues of accessibility (cost) for therapeutic robots are already being investigated so a future with common usage of therapeutic robots may not be too far ahead.