NMSU student develops robotic arm that mimics human touch

Ernesto Cisneros

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Rachel Au, psychology graduate student, and the robotic arm.

A graduate student here at New Mexico State University is focusing on a unique project that improves social interaction through robotic technology with the hopes that it will help people during the times of COVID-19.  

Rachel Au, a first-year PhD student in the psychology department, is working with the Toyota Research Institute and her graduate school colleagues to develop ways to improve social interaction by creating a robotic arm that will mimic human touch.  

Au’s background in social psychology, interest in mind perception and understanding if other entities have thought processes will guide this project. Au is interested in researching the psychological aspects of modern technology such as examining if technology has the capability of functioning like humans and whether it affects human interactions or relationships.  

Au said the research must be conducted first to understand people’s perceptions about robotic technology and whether they favor its use.  

“Robots are used in many places now they are in our workplace and some countries they use them in shopping malls or different places that people go to. So, people are exposed to robots and how they think about robots is important to study because we want to know if people have different attitudes toward robots, it may affect how they interact with robots or it may affect how they view different policies about robots,” Au said.   

Based on this concept, Au argues that her research would best be applied to her robotic arm which is hoping to improve social relationships especially in the times of COVID-19 when interaction and communication are limited.  

“We are all interested in how to use robots to improve people’s lives especially social life like if a robot can facilitate social interaction or help people to communicate better…when people cannot meet each other… especially if we’re talking to friends or families, we may want more physical contact,” Au said.  

Au said the goal of this project is to have the robotic arm mimic physical contact with a loved one or friend when it’s physically not possible to do so in-person like on a Zoom or phone call. That gesture would be something like a pat on the back or nudge to the shoulder.  

A huge part of creating this project requires resources to be available. For Au, that means getting administration and ethical approval for her research.  

“I actually found that we face a lot of admin difficulty when we want to start this project. We have to get approval to buy a robot, we have to get ethical approval to run the research, there are many different admin procedure difficulty that we are facing that may slow down our project especially during this covid period,” Au said.  

Au’s determination is lively as she hopes for success in this project and a positive impact on people.  

“If there’s a robot that can help us to connect with other people even when we’re living alone or staying at home without seeing our friends, I think this is what we want to achieve in the end of this project,” Au said.  

Au said she’s enjoyed her time at NMSU thus far and hopes to experience and explore more of the culture, resources and opportunities that exist here.   

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