Don’t Read my Face:
Tackling the Challenges of Facial Masking in Parkinson’s Disease Rehabilitation through Co-Robot Mediator

Many aspects of co-robots are currently investigated, from algorithms for scene and activity understanding, to planning for human-robot teaming, and natural language interactions between humans and robots. However, there is surprisingly little work on mechanisms that will allow co-robots to behave in a manner that is ethical and sensitive to the moral context and social norms. This is particularly worrisome as simple robots are already entering society without any notion of ethically acceptable behavior and this situation will only be exacerbated in the future if various kinds of social and assistive robots will cause humans to form unidirectional emotional bonds with robots without those robots being sensitive to human emotions and feelings. In this NSF-funded collaborative NRI project, we will tackle a hitherto completely overlooked ethical aspect of human-robot interaction: maintenance of human dignity and the stigmatization of human patients.

The overarching scientific goal of this project is two-fold: (1) to develop a robotic architecture endowed with moral emotional control mechanisms, abstract moral reasoning, and a theory of mind that allow co-robots to be sensitive to human affective and ethical demands, and (2) to develop a specific instance of the architecture for a co-robot mediator between people with “facial masking” due to Parkinson’s disease (PD) that reduces their ability to signal emotion, pain, personality and intentions to their family caregivers, and health care providers who often misinterpret the lack of emotional expressions as disinterest and an inability to adhere to treatment regimen, resulting in stigmatization.  Specific questions we will address include:

(1) How can an expanded set of moral emotions, particularly empathy, be modelled and exhibited by co-robots to provide quantitatively better care of patients, in particular, early patients with PD.

(2) How can we develop a theory of mind of both caregiver and patient (including their goals and emotional states) that can be used by a “co-robot mediator” to improve the quality of care for patients while enhancing the dignity of both patient and caregiver?

To tackle these problems, the project brings together two roboticists, Prof. Matthias Scheutz (Tufts) and Prof. Ron Arkin (Georgia Tech) with extensive prior experience in robot ethics and modeling emotions as well as implementing them in integrated autonomous robotic systems.  The robotics expertise is combined with that of an expert in early PD rehabilitation and daily social life, Prof. Linda Tickle-Degnen (Tufts).