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World Mental Health Day

10 October 2020

Big Job Ahead for “Smart” Service Robots

Robots for the rest of us
World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2020. Only a day!? That’s the first sobering thought that springs to mind. World Mental Health Year is more of what’s needed these days.

Even a year, given the profound changes that have taken place in both the workplace and on the home front, is all too short a time to even begin to gather together what’s happened to us in this pandemic. Let alone do something constructive about it.

Only a day?
When “68 percent of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work; and when 75 percent say AI has helped their mental health at work by giving them necessary information for their jobs automating tasks, and reducing stress,” it’s more than a tip-off that something big is going down that needs attention pronto.

Machines counseling willing, human workers is an astounding turn of events. Many of these same human workers are the ones who dread the robot takeover of their jobs and livelihoods.

COVID and the blended life/work style it created have witnessed lives blurred between “personal and professional worlds with people working remotely, 35 percent of people are working 40+ more hours each month and 25 percent of people have been burned out from overwork.”

Yet: “Despite perceived drawbacks of remote work, 62 percent of people find remote work more appealing now than they did before the pandemic, saying they now have more time to spend with family (51 percent), sleep (31 percent), and get work done (30 percent).”

The global study from Oracle & Workplace Intelligence titled “As Uncertainty Remains, Anxiety and Stress Reach a Tipping Point at Work” has dug up some amazing reactions from over 12,000 people surveyed worldwide.

“COVID-19 has negatively impacted the mental health of the global workforce, with 7 out of 10 people saying this has been the most stressful year of their working lives. On top of health worries and complex family dynamics, 4 out of 10 people say they are also battling everyday workplace stressors like the pressure to meet performance standards, routine and tedious tasks, and unmanageable workloads:

  • 84 percent of workers have faced challenges while working remotely, with the biggest factors being no distinction between personal and professional lives (41 percent) and dealing with increased mental health challenges like stress and anxiety (33 percent).
  • Only 18 percent of people would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health as they believe robots provide a judgement-free zone (34 percent), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30 percent), and quick answers to health-related questions (29 percent).
  • 68 percent of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80 percent of people are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor.
  • 75 percent say AI has helped their mental health at work. The top benefits noted were providing the information needed to do their job more effectively (31 percent), automating tasks and decreasing workload to prevent burnout (27 percent), and reducing stress by helping to prioritize tasks (27 percent).
  • AI has also helped the majority (51 percent) of workers shorten their work week and allowed them to take longer vacations (51 percent). Over half of respondents say AI technology increases employee productivity (63 percent), improves job satisfaction (54 percent), and improves overall well-being (52 percent).

That bears repeating:

Over half of respondents say AI technology increases employee productivity (63 percent), improves job satisfaction (54 percent), and improves overall well-being (52 percent).

Just when we need them most
Okay, so we see AI in the workplace making 50 percent of workers feel a direct benefit with productivity, job satisfaction, and well-being. That’s a powerful presence.

But where are the service and personal robots, either at work or at home, that can provide the assistance that workers are looking for? Those “68 percent of people [who] would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80 percent of people [who] are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor.

The Oracle & Workplace Intelligence survey exposed an addressable marketplace that is massively global and looking for help.

Problem is, there aren’t any service or personal robots ready and capable of taking on the challenge.

Maybe they should be as Cynthia Breazeal describes: personal robots for “Relational AI”— “AI that can understand us as people and treat us as people.”

It’s a mega-opportunity for the robotics community to take on. Infusing service robots or personal robots with AI could well be the harbinger of a behemoth industry.

See related:

What I Want from a Home Robot

Lonely Hearts Club Robots

Let’s Get Creative with "Smart" Robotics

We need a lot of it right about now
Dispelling the myth of “uncreative” engineers
“Why does the perception persist that engineers are uncreative, or worse, do not need to tap into creativity when most engineering projects demand creative or innovative approaches in the design of equipment, systems, and facilities?” ask the authors of Making The Strange Familiar: Creativity and the Future of Engineering Education.

That the perception has persisted for such a long time is probably reason enough to double down on dispelling the notion once and for all.

On this World Mental Health Day for 2020, with a troubled world reaching out to robotics for assistance in myriad work and life situations, there’s an even greater need for robotics engineering to be creative and to continually foster its presence in every engineering discipline.

Leaning heavily on the late Dr. E. Paul Torrance, a pioneering creativity researcher for over 60 years, and often called The Father of Creativity, the authors put together a paper that takes a compelling look at the nature of creativity in engineering. In short, it’s there big time, yet undervalued as a key component in engineering education.

“When approaching technical matters, the term “innovation” is often used”, say the authors, “instead of creativity to describe the process that leads to insight or progress in a field, with a technique, or with a physical product. While innovation connotes a sense of inventing a thing as opposed to an idea or a theory, it is essentially a synonym for the creative process. Perhaps technical people prefer to be “innovative” rather than “creative.”

“Regardless of what you call it, both innovation and creativity should lead one to the same end: to the exciting world of inventing and creating new knowledge, processes, and artifacts that push forward our science, technology, and art.”

The authors cite a Harris Poll sponsored by the American Association of Engineering Societies and IEEE-USA found that “only 2 percent of the public associate the word ‘invents’ with engineering; [and] only 3 percent associate the word ‘creative’ with engineering.”

Creative process
“Most any process can be improved, and since creativity is essentially a process, it too can be studied, tracked, and improved. There are tests and metrics that can help measure and gauge creativity, but the experts agree that to develop creativity you must learn to flex and reflex your creativity muscles. This process is often enhanced through the use of creativity tools such as brainstorming and idea notebooks.

“Brainstorming is a two-step process where ideas are first generated without constraint, and then critiqued using criteria such as practicality or applicability to the problem domain. Many variations exist, including using computer programs. But again, you must use it or lose it. If one does not consistently practice creativity techniques, like any machine or muscle, they will grow rusty and stiff.”

Well, so as not to have you get too rusty, stiff, of flaccid, whichever the case may be, check this out. A creativity and robotics challenge is afoot, and it’s looking for you. Ready?

Are you ready to challenge your creativity?
The publisher, Frontiers, is looking for some writing from just about anyone on the topic of Creativity and Robotics. It’s a great opportunity “to flex and reflex your creativity muscles” in pursuit of fame—certainly not fortune—and a wad of street cred.

As Frontiers writes in its call for papers: “There are many important lines of investigation within creativity and robotics. Some include designing and developing robots that can integrate and facilitate creativity in humans, solve problems creatively, provide “out of the box” ideas, act curiously, be intrinsically motivated, make sense of and integrate different stimuli, and extend the human potential by achieving tasks that neither the robot nor the human could do alone.

“By exploring novel ways to emulate creativity in robots, we aim to create new tools, as well as to advance the understanding of what creativity is in humans. Understanding human creativity is an ongoing, active research area where multiple definitions for the term “creativity” exist.”

Frontiers lists 18 possible topics, but certainly are not limited to them. The last one is elastic enough to fit most anything: “Identifying key aspects of human creativity for machine design.”

Submission Deadlines:
30 November 2020 for the Abstract; and 31 January 2021 Manuscript.

You’ve got more than a month for brainstorming before the Abstract is due.

Now, get crack’  …and best of luck.

And please remember to take in our new column: Career Guide to “Smart” Robotics.

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