Robot cuddles could fill void as pandemic makes touching taboo, research finds

An Israeli study says an interactive stuffed animal could hold the key to pain relief, opening a window to compassionate care even under social distancing rules

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Shelly Levy-Tzedek, head of the Cognition, Aging and Rehabilitation laboratory at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with a PARO robot. (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University of the Negev)
Shelly Levy-Tzedek, head of the Cognition, Aging and Rehabilitation laboratory at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with a PARO robot. (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University of the Negev)

As the coronavirus pandemic leaves many missing the warmth of human embrace, Israeli scientists say robots can whir into the breach, even helping sufferers through pain when there’s nobody to hold their hand.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev intentionally hurt volunteers by heating their skin to high temperatures, and found that if they had the companionship and touch of a furry robot, the pain was experienced less intensely.

This research, just published in the journal Scientific Reports, represents “an early step in the direction of robotized pain relief,” said Shelly Levy-Tzedek, head of Ben Gurion’s Cognition, Aging and Rehabilitation Laboratory, adding that it adds to a small body of research that she said could make companion-robots commonplace in hospitals and for the elderly.

Human touch is known to have potential to make people feel less pain, but during social distancing restrictions, doctors, nurses, carers and other non-relatives who may normally offer physical comfort often won’t, noted Levy-Tzedek.

“Our research suggests that social robots can help to alleviate some of the loneliness and other feelings people have from lacking social touch and human interaction,” she said.

Shelly Levy-Tzedek (left) holding a PARO robot, with a lab engineer. (courtesy of Ben Gurion University of the Negev)

Healthy adults took part in sessions lasting just under an hour, run by postdoctoral fellow Nirit Geva. They were subjected to different levels of pain. Some of the 83 volunteers were introduced to PARO, a Japanese-produced social robot that looks like a furry white seal. It makes seal-like noises and moves its head and flippers in response to being touched and spoken to.

Levy-Tzedek, a biomedical engineer, emphasized that no funding or assistance was received for the research from any robotics company.

A lab engineer (left) testing Shelly Levy Tzedek’s experiment, with heat administered to her arm as she touches a PARO robot. (courtesy of Shelly Levy Tzedek)

PARO interacted with the volunteers, and asked them to perform a series of exercises that invited their touch. As well as feeling pain less intensely, those who interacted with the robot reported higher happiness levels than the others, and were found to have lower levels of oxytocin.

Levy-Tzedek said that while oxytocin is known as the “love hormone,” when produced outside of a relationship context, it can reflect stress, suggesting that the robot causes a drop in stress levels.

She said that the drop in pain levels is particularly promising, commenting: “Even a short interaction with a robot can lead to reduction in pain, and this opens up possibilities for robots to deal with situations of pain, whether it’s having blood drawn or after an operation.”

Asked if a regular cuddly toy could produce the same effect, she said that the results suggest otherwise, as the more people felt able to interact with the robot, the greater the pain reduction they experienced.

She suggested that her findings “reveal a profound effect of human-robot social interaction on pain and emotions” and “offer new strategies for pain management and for improving well-being.”

Levy-Tzedek wrote in her research paper that it represents new contribution to her field, which has generally concentrated on children as opposed to adults.

“Our current study adds to the existing body of knowledge, in demonstrating that interaction with the PARO robot is effective in increasing perceived happiness also in healthy adults,” Levy-Tzedek wrote.

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