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Robots Reciting Shakespeare With Seniors In UTA Study Hints At Future Companion Role

Robots are assuming more and more roles in our daily lives. They can ask us about our day, play songs for us and, as one study from the University of Texas Arlington shows, can perform Shakespeare with us, too. 

In the study, older adults at an independent-living facility in Arlington interacted with a robot using Shakespearean sonnets. Researchers found that after three weeks, there was a drop in depression and increase in social engagement among these older adults.

The study comes from UTA's new Emotional Robotics Living Lab, which explores the bigger idea of robots as companions and caregivers in the future.

Julienne Greer, an assistant professor of theatre arts and the lab's director, explains how one of the robots, called NAO, was used in the study. Listen to NAO in the interview below.

Interview Highlights

About NAO and its role in the study

This robot is about 23 inches tall. It's humanoid, which means that it definitely looks human-like. It has a head, two arms, two legs. It can walk. It's only about 12 pounds. We took this robot to an assisted-living facility, Brookdale of Arlington, and we engaged this robot with eight different participants over a course of three weeks. And during that intervention, the robot's eye color changes, the robot moves very fluidly and the robot speaks to the participants. After acting out Shakespeare, the robot says "Please, can I come back again? I would love to be able to do this with you."

What Greer's team learned from the study

It was not just reciting Shakespeare. We made this study because we wanted the robot to participate with the older adult. Now, when somebody is participating in an art, they're not just looking at that painting, they're not just listening to that music. They are actually in a process of doing, and that was shown to have incredibly positive results.

It comes from work early in the 2000s from a research scientist, Dr. Jean Cohen, and in that group of human-human model participatory arts, they found conclusions of fewer doctor visits, fewer falls and less medication because these older adults were interacting and participating in arts.

I approached my team if they'd be interested in that as well. How wonderful it is that we have this data. How often does a theater company get to go into assisted-living facility? Not very often at all. If we could possibly hypothesize that a robot might be able to have that same positive outlook, then that robot could visit perhaps 35 people in one day. And all of these wonderful positive outcomes might happen in that human-robot model. We feel that we're onto something and very excited about continuing to look at expansions to that study.

Watch NAO do tai chi in the studio

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.