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Table of Contents


Volume 6, Issue, 3 2022


Volume 6, Issue 3, 2022

An Introduction to Social Robots and Robot Assisted Therapy

Dr Deborah Johanson, Freelance Science & Medical Writer

While it might seem like science fiction, the use of robots in everyday life is fast approaching reality. Many robots are already in use worldwide, undertaking tasks such as preparing food, dispensing medications, and providing companionship. Some robots are even capable of rather unusual tasks, such as performing stand-up comedy, playing musical instruments and carrying out dance routines. 

Figure 1: Trumpet playing Toyota robot.
By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The word ‘robot’ was created by a Czechoslovakian science fiction author called Josef Capek. In the 1920s, Capek wrote a play called ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (English translation). In the play, robots are created to serve human beings but soon become dissatisfied and begin killing the humans they were designed to help. In the years since Capek’s play, the word ‘robot’ has become commonplace – as have movies featuring ‘killer robots’. In reality, robots are generally designed to be helpful, although there are also many potential ramifications that are important to be aware of.

Social Robots

The Robotics Industries Association defines a robot as a “reprogrammable, multifunctional, manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or specialized devices, through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks”. 

The first functioning robot was a robot arm invented by George Charles Devol in 1954. Devol called his invention the Unimate. It was used to transfer objects from one place to another. The Unimate was generally used by car manufacturers to handle hot metal, stack pieces of metal, and perform spot welding. Today, industrial robots are in use worldwide, undertaking tasks that would be harmful, hazardous, or boring to humans. The Sawyer robot is an example of an industrial robot. Sawyer can perform many factory-related tasks – and can even learn new tasks if they are demonstrated using its arm. 

Since the invention of the Unimate, robotics technology has advanced significantly. These advances have allowed for the creation of robots that can interact with human beings in human social environments, such as schools, hospitals, airports, and restaurants. Robots that are designed to interact with people are called social robots

Figure 2: The Sawyer Robot.
By Jeff Green/Rethink Robotics - Rethink Robotics, CC BY 4.0,

Social Assistive Robots

Social assistive robots are designed to provide support and services to help people in everyday life. Social assistive robots also support healthcare professionals, educators, and families by helping children or adults with problems that need personalised support.

Figure 3: The Paro Robot.
By Tekniska museet/Peter Häll TEKS0057912, CC BY-SA 4.0,

An example of a social assistive robot is the Paro robot. Designed to look and act like a baby fur seal, Paro is used to providing companionship to people who may be lonely, such as older adults living in aged care facilities. Studies have shown that Paro can reduce patient stress, increase relaxation and motivation, and increase socialisation. 

Healthcare robots are social assistive robots designed to carry out tasks that improve or maintain a person’s health or life quality (Broadbent et al., 2009). Healthcare robots are used in medical settings, such as hospitals and general practice clinics (family doctors), and are also designed for use at home. 

One example is the Pepper robot, which can be used in healthcare settings to provide medical education, collect patient information, and help maintain social distancing. 

Figure 4: The Pepper Robot.
By Softbank Robotics Europe - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Robot appearance plays an important part in the design process because it can affect whether a robot will be successful in its tasks. Some are designed with mainly their tasks in mind. Others are designed based on whether they interact with adults or children. For example, young children will not interact with a robot that scares them, just as a robot without arms is not practical for preparing food. 

One of the ways we can categorise social robots is by their appearance. These categories can include:

Functional robots. Functional robots appear in line with the specific tasks they will perform. For example, a robot designed to help patients transfer from a wheelchair to a bed may have handlebars and grips as the main aspects of its appearance. 

Humanoid robots. Humanoid robots are designed to be ‘human-like’ in appearance and movement. These robots often use eye gaze and gestures to improve interactions with people. 

Zoomorphic robots. Zoomorphic robots look and often act like animals. These robots are usually used by people within their home environment. It is thought that by taking the form of an animal, the robot will be able to better create a  human-animal relationship with its user, like that of an owner-pet relationship.

Therapy Robots

Therapy robots – as the name suggests – are designed to assist a person with a specific type of therapy. In the last few years, therapy robots have become available in rehabilitation clinics and home environments. In addition, many more therapy robots are being tested or trialled to determine if they are helpful to the people they are designed to assist. 

Rehabilitation robots are therapy robots designed for use in rehabilitation. Rehabilitation robots fall under the umbrella of healthcare robots. Healthcare robots can be grouped into clinical, assistive, and rehabilitation robots. Unlike assistive health robots that are generally designed to help patients or healthcare professionals in medical environments (for example, transferring a patient from the bed to a wheelchair), rehabilitation robots are generally designed to help improve the mobility of people with physical injuries or disabilities.

Robot Rehabilitation Therapy

Mobility – the ability to move easily and without restriction – is essential to child development. Mobility affects how the brain and body grow over time and impacts social and emotional development. Children with physical disabilities often have limited mobility, which can affect their ongoing development. Physical therapy is one of the ways mobility can be improved or maintained for these children.

Physical therapy aims to restore mobility and function to children with physical injuries or disabilities. This usually involves prescribed stretching or strengthening exercises overseen by a physiotherapist, the child’s parent or carer. Recently, robotics researchers have begun exploring ways that socially assistive robots might be able to help children with physical disabilities perform therapy exercises. In doing so, the robots would not only be helping these children but would be providing support to their families, carers, and healthcare providers. 

One of the benefits of therapy robots is that they can be programmed to perform different kinds of therapy exercises depending on the child’s needs. These exercises can be grouped into passive, active, assistive, or resistive exercises. The passive exercise involves the robot moving a part of a child’s body for them. The assistive exercise involves the child undertaking a movement and the robot assisting only when needed. The resistive exercise involves the child pushing or pulling against the robot, while active exercise involves a child moving a body part themselves with feedback from the robot. While rehabilitation robots are still far from perfect, they represent a promising way to provide physical rehabilitation to children with physical impairments.

Figure 5: An example of a robot exoskeleton.
By Exo-robotics - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Robotic exoskeletons – sometimes called wearable robots –  are another possible way to provide rehabilitation therapy to children. Exoskeletons are portable and are worn by the user. They are generally designed to help the wearer perform a movement pattern,  increase strength, or to enhance endurance. When looking at research examining the use of robots in kids’ rehabilitation therapy, there is a trend towards exoskeletons. This is because exoskeletons can help children in their everyday lives and be used outside the home or hospital environment. It is hoped that one day, these exoskeletons may help children with physical disabilities to walk or play sports that they would otherwise be unable to enjoy.

Robot-Assisted Autism Therapy

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects communication and behaviour.  People with autism see, hear, and feel the world differently to people without autism – this means they can find it difficult to interact or communicate with others. A spectrum disorder means that people with autism are affected differently in their symptoms and severity. For example, some people with autism do not speak, while others can but find it difficult to explain how they feel. 

One of the main ways therapy robots are used with children is to provide therapy for autism and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms. Robot-assisted autism therapy is used to help children with autism develop imitation, eye contact, and turn-taking skills. It is also used to help children with autism recognise emotion and emotional expressions in others. Children with ASD can be disinterested in interacting with other people. However, studies have shown that children with ASD are generally keen to interact with robots. This interest provides an opportunity for a robot to engage with the child and is one of the reasons why scientists believe robots may be effective in autism therapy. 

Another reason robots are used in autism therapy because they can be programmed to act reliably and predictably. This creates an environment that encourages social engagement between the child and the robot. This engagement again provides an opportunity for robot-assisted autism therapy, such as learning social and communication skills. Many studies have looked at the effectiveness of robots in providing robot-assisted autism therapy with promising results (Alabdulkareem et al, 2022).  

An example of a robot designed for use in robot-assisted autism therapy is the Kaspar robot. Kaspar can help children with ASD better understand basic emotions, learn about socially acceptable touching, and learn turn-taking.

Figure 6: DThe Kaspar Robot
By 384 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

A Future with Social Robots

Robotics is a growing area of research, with more social robots being invented every year. When considering how social robots can help adults and children, it is easy to imagine a world where social robots become part of everyday life. Who knows, it might be a social robot that looks after you when you are unwell, helps you with your homework, or chats to you about your day in a few years. What could this mean? It’s important to be aware of the ethical, legal and social ramifications of robots and how they can be misused. Concerns can relate to privacy, liability, autonomy, economic implications and the replacement of human interactions.

Student activities

  1. Re-examine the provided definition of a robot (according to The Robotics Industries Association). Break this definition down into smaller parts and think about what this means. For example, what does “reprogrammable” mean? What does “multifunctional” mean? Try to see if you can re-write this definition in easy-to-understand language.


  2. What is a social robot? How does it differ from an industrial robot?


  3. Research some of the ways that healthcare robots are currently being used around the world.


  4. In groups, discuss how you feel about robots being used to provide rehabilitation therapy to children. Would you feel comfortable receiving rehabilitation therapy from a robot? Why? Why not?


  5. Do some research on exoskeletons. Describe three different ways these robots are being used to help people move.


  6. Why is the look of a social robot important? How can a social robot’s appearance help it perform its tasks?


  7. Describe the difference between passive, active, assistive, or resistive robot rehabilitation.


  8. What are some of the negative ramifications of using robots – research and discuss in groups.


  9. What would these be if you could create some rules that people had to follow when creating robots? For example, a rule might be that a robot can never hurt a human. Or that a robot can never lie to a human.


  10. Some people believe that robots will one day be able to undertake any task in society. What are some tasks that you think should only be undertaken by humans? Why?



Alabdulkareem, A., et al (2022). A systematic review of research on robot-assisted therapy for children with Autism. Sensors, 22(3), 944.

Clabaugh, C., Ragusa, G., Sha, F., & Mataric, M. (2015). Designing a socially assistive robot for personalised number concepts leaning in reschool children. Paper presented at the 5th International Conference on Development and Learning, Rhode Island, USA.

Falazarano, V., et al. (2019). Devices and protocols for upper limb robot-assisted rehabilitation of children with neuromotor disorders. Applied Sciences, 9(13): 2689.

Fong, I. N., & Dautenhahn. (2016). A survey of socially interactive robots: concepts, design, and applications. Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 42(3), 143-166.

Gonzales, A., et al. (2021). Robotic devices for paediatric rehabilitation: a review of design features. BioMedical Engineering OnLine, 20(89): 2021.

IEEE Spectrum Robots. (2022). Kaspar. Accessed March 2022 from

Jayawardena, C., Kuo, I., Datta, C., Stafford, R. Q., Broadbent, E., & MacDonald, B. A. (2012). Design, implementation and field tests of a socially assistive robot for the elderly: HealthBot version 2. Paper presented at the IEEE RAS/EMBS International Conference on Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics, Rome, Italy.

Long, T. (2011, Janaury 25). Jan. 25, 1921: Robots First Czech In. Wired.

Lutz, C (2019). The key challenges of social robots. 

Malone, B. (2011, September 26). George Devol: A life devoted to invention, and robots. IEEE Spectrum.

Paro Robots. (2022). Paro therapeutic robot. Accessed March 2022 from

Rethink Robotics. (2022). Sawyer. Accessed March 2022 from

Soffar, H (2022). Advantages and disadvantages of using robots in our life.

Softbank Robotics (2022). Healthcare. Accessed March 2022 from

Stone, W. L. (2005). The history of Robotics. In T. R. Kurfess (Ed.), Robotics and automation handbook (1-1 – 1-12). CRC Press.

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