Driving us sane

In a literal test drive, I chatted with experimental robots that help manage stress — here’s how it went

Pablo Paredes, PhD, a Stanford Medicine instructor, is the mastermind and engineer behind what he calls 'the mindful commute.' It’s a collection of gadgets — including chatbots, steering wheels that sense stress and car seats that vibrate in sync with your heartbeat — that aim to transform the daily schlep to and from the office into a sanctioned time to cultivate your mental well-being.

Stephanie Balters and Pablo Paredes test the mindful commute technology, with Paredes in the driver's seat. The test includes having seven cameras: four to observe the driver and three to capture the driving behavior. Sensors that are fitted on the driver records responses to specific stimulus. 

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I had a chance to demo the various technologies installed in Paredes’ well-being-mobile, as I fondly dubbed it, one of which had me chatting with a suite of kindly robots. At their core, these bots are like robot therapists. The idea: You tell them what’s ailing you; they help you think it through or come to a solution.

I tested a few, each of which takes a different approach to curtailing stress. One — my personal favorite, Sir Laughs-A-Bot — helps you find something humorous about the situation; one encourages you to engage in positive thinking; another helps you sleuth out the root of the stress.

When I arrived at Paredes’ lab for the chatbot demo, Hiroshi Mendoza, the lead graduate student on the project, gave me the rundown.

“You’ll take that car and drive it around campus. When you leave, the chatbot will talk to you,” he said. “And you’ll talk back.”

Easy enough. Buckled in and ready to divulge my biggest stresses to a little robot, I took the car out for a spin. As I turned out of the lab, the bot spoke up.

“Hi! I’m Sir Laughs-A-Bot. I’m here to help you deal with your stress. Can you tell me a little about a recent event that’s making you stressed?”

There was a hot spell that week, so I went with the first thing that came to mind. “I’m on the second floor of an apartment that’s in sunlight all day — without air conditioning it really heats up.” After sharing a few more details, Sir Laughs-A-Bot responded.

“That does sound stressful! Let’s try looking at this situation in a different light. I want you to take a few minutes to come up with a joke about this situation.”

A joke? On the spot? Sir Laughs-A-Bot seemed to sense my apprehension. “Don’t worry about it being the best joke, just think of something humorous about the situation.”

I stumbled through a made-up anecdote about me being so sweaty and smelly I’d forget the temperature outside. It was barely a joke. But Sir Laughs-A-Bot gave a good-natured giggle anyway.

“Hehe! You’re funny,” the bot chirped. “Humor can be found in many situations. Did that help you find something good or at least funny about the situation?”

I’ll admit, I giggled, too, when the robot gave me a pity laugh. And maybe it didn’t solve the problem, but it did make me chuckle and think about the situation differently, which Paredes said is half the battle in dealing with stress.

Hanae Armitage is a science writer for the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email her at harmitag@stanford.edu.

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