Why Social Work and Robots?

Social work and Robots – these two seem to be almost in conflict with each other. Social Work is a profession founded on human relationships and a Robots are non-human agents. Yet we are entering an era where the two seem to be on a collision course with the emergence of social assistive robots into various human service settings such as hospital, classrooms, and long-term care homes.

I have been fascinated with technology and robots from the time I was a child. I grew up watching the original Lost in Space and was intrigued by the Robot also known as M3-B9 G.U.N.T.E.R. who displayed human like characteristics including sarcasm and humor.  We had Rosie the robot  in the Jetsons cartoons offering a glimpse of humanistic qualities in autonomous entities and the famous R2-D2 and   C-3PO robots in Star Wars captured our imaginations of how human-robot relationships might evolve.

My first exposure to the concept Artificial Intelligence (AI) came when I watched the Disney Movie,  Smart House in 1999 which told the story of a computer controlled dream house taking on a life of its own.  Another of my favorites is Wall-E in Disney’s 2008 movie depicting a futuristic world where Wall-E is a robot that displays human emotions and acts as an extension of humans as he works to restore Earth to a living space.

While Robots in fictional stories are most visible, the first interface between humans and a robot can be found in  ELIZA , a computer program created in 1964 by Joseph Weizenbaum. ELIZA was not mobile, nor did it have any humanistic features other than the ability to respond verbally to human voice. Created to simulate a Rogerian psychotherapist, Weizenbaum found that many individuals who interacted with ELIZA attributed human-like feelings to the computer program. This was the first time it was thought a computer could assist individuals with psychological and emotional challenges. Thus human-robot relationships within a paradigm of psychology actually emerged more than fifty years ago.

Modern advancements in more autonomous entities and AI can be traced through the work by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal of MIT, a pioneer in the development of social robots. Reading about Dr. Breazeal’s work, I knew in my heart, and my imagination, that robots could be created to serve humans and to enhance the human experience beyond entertaining, but to actually improve the lives  especially for individuals with cognitive, physical or mental health challenges, along with their caregivers and professional service providers.  As we entered the decade of 2020, we have seen how rapidly robots are integrating into our lives. We have Alexa who can control our homes,  Siri who can direct our driving and now the introduction of Temi, a consumer oriented robot that is equipped with AI is available as a mobile assistant for our personal spaces.

Temi, developed in 2017, with a full release in 2018-19 is the first consumer-based personal robot. The developers of Temi are the first to tackle the tough challenges of creating a robotic entity that has the engineering to be highly functional yet intuitive enough for an individual with no specialized training can use it to its full capability.

Temi offers us an intuitive, affordable robot that we can deploy and begin our work in improving the human condition through the practice-oriented, relationship focused perspectives of social work and the technological aspect of robotics.

We purchased our first Temi in September of 2019 and began to explore possibilities. In February of 2020, President Rudin and CeCe Gassner, Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Texas A&M University-Commerce believed in us and provided support for the creation of our Living Lab and the purchase of 3 Temi robots. Dr. Chris Jones and I were just ramping up our initiative when the world turned upside down and we were plunged into social distancing and working remotely.

But we seized this opportunity to deploy Temi to Legacy Assisted Living and Memory Care  in Denison to help enhance resident and family communication during this time of physical distancing.  We are still in the learning curve, but excited that we will be able to provide support for those living their, the families and service providers.

Here, on this site, is where we will share our story of triumphs and challenges as we carry out the mission of  A&M-Commerce School of Social Work Living Lab

Rebecca Judd, Ph.D., LCDC, LMSW-IPR

Associate Professor & Department Head

School of Social Work

A&M University-Commerce


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