Could a Robot Improve the Way We Treat OCD?

A robot that mimics obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) could help us understand the condition (Lewis et al., 2019).

OCD involves obsessive worrying that compels people to carry out rituals like repeated handwashing, and generates anxiety if they cannot complete these compulsions.

Researchers recreated this in a robot they programmed to achieve three goals:

  • Eat;
  • Avoid bumping into things; and
  • Groom.

The robot eats by touching light patches on the floor, replenishing its energy. It grooms by going to, and bumping into, a solid post – a behaviour that causes damage and runs down its energy if performed excessively.

To recreate a compulsive drive, the robot’s target grooming level was set beyond what it could
achieve, prompting the robot to run out of energy 95% of the time.

Treatment for OCD often involves exposing someone to the things that trigger their obsessive thoughts and preventing them from responding.

In future, showing people with OCD how the robot might improve may help them accept such stressful
treatment (Lewis et al., 2019).

There is some concern that the robot’s quirks might reinforce the idea that the condition is all down to weird behaviours, instead of distressing, obsessive thoughts. We have been studying people for years, though, so maybe robots do have a role.

Reference

Lewis, M., Fineberg, N. & Canamero, L. (2019) A Robot Model of OC-Spectrum Disorders: Design Framework, Implementation, and First Experiments. Computational Psychiatry. 3, pp.40-75. https://doi.org/10.1162/cpsy_a_00025

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