Sometimes the kind of therapeutic help we need is nothing more than a little support and encouragement. Simply being reminded of our goals — whether it's staying on a diet or exercising more — and why we want to achieve them may be all that it takes to stay the course. Motivational interviews, a counseling technique designed to motivate and support changes in behavior, are often used to deliver this kind of help.

The motivational interview (MI) usually involves a counselor encouraging a client to talk about their need for change, and why they want to change. The interviewer's role is to have a conversation with the client that touches on his or her interest in change and to offer support and encouragement for their continuing commitment to their goals.

Robots were often preferred over a human counselor asking the same kinds of questions.

That's where the robot pictured above comes in.

British researchers at the University of Plymouth programmed a robot with a script designed to bring up ideas and conversation on how someone could increase their physical activity. People who wanted to exercise more consulted the robot, and it encouraged them to talk about their goals and any problems they were having, using motivational interviewing techniques. Clients tapped the top of the robot's head when they were ready for the robot's next question.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how easily the participants adapted to the unusual experience of discussing their lifestyle with a robot,” lead author, Jackie Andrade, explained. In fact, because they were perceived as nonjudgmental, robots were often preferred over a human counselor asking the same kinds of questions. “…[T]he participants perceived the interaction as enjoyable, interesting and helpful. Participants found it especially useful to hear themselves talking about their behaviour aloud, and liked the fact that the robot didn't interrupt, which suggests that this new intervention has a potential advantage over other technology-delivered adaptations of MI,” Andrade added.

While it's not clear yet whether the robot's support and encouragement succeeded in improving clients' activity levels, the study does offer proof of the concept that robots can be programmed to help motivate people to achieve their goals.

The study is published in Journal of Medical Internet Research.