Being hospitalized long-term as a child is traumatic, separated from home, their own bedrooms, and often, their parents and caretakers. Now, a robot named Robin will provide emotional support to children staying at the UCLA Mattel Children’s hospital at the University of California Los Angeles. Robin was developed and built by Expper Technologies, which creates and manufactures robots to ease a hospitalized child’s distress and isolation.
The coronavirus greatly reduced human contact in hospitals to the minimum, notably between medical personnel and hospitalized children, due to fears of spreading COVID-19 to children who were particularly vulnerable, said creator Karen Khachikyan, CEO and founder of Expper Technologies.
Many facilities “were looking for a solution to provide emotional support to children,” Khachikyan said. Robin “was a very timely solution” for UCLA pediatrics and is already at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) waiting to be deployed in two weeks, he said.
Khachikyan said he and his team realized Robin’s full potential when Sarah, 4, was hospitalized with pneumonia and in for a lengthy stay.
“This is not something kids at a young age expect to undergo,” he said. “That’s a lot of stress, which usually involves a loss of appetite and a feeling of loneliness.”
Sarah had “barely eaten anything in two days. She refused to walk around the ward or even talk with her family. The toughest task had become convincing her to eat. This was the moment to see Robin in action.”
“After playing with her for a while and discussing what Sarah loved, Robin told her that he needed to recharge its battery. Robin told her that he would come back if she recharged herself as well. Having heard that from someone who had become a ‘friend’ in a very short time convinced Sarah to start eating.”
Robin’s child-friendly design appeals to children, he added. “Robin easily appeals to children. Through emotional conversations, Robin builds an empathetic connection, and behaves like an actual peer.” It plays interactive games, tells funny stories and jokes, and explains complicated procedures in an age-appropriate way.
“During the medical procedures, Robin distracts children and makes the procedures easier to undergo and can reduce the perception of pain. Robin can be utilized during procedures such as IV insertion, blood sampling, CT scanning.” While in hospital, Robin continually visits children and “helps them feel less isolated and lonely.”
The initial study
A nine-week study the company conducted in February at the Wigmore Clinic in Yerevan, Armenia, demonstrated that Robin and its ability to provide mental-health care resulted in an increase of 26% more joy, and a 34% reduction of stress.
The pilot study took place in both inpatient and outpatient settings and involved more than 200 children, 4 to 12, Khachikyan said.
Robin was developed in 2018, using an AI-based patent-pending technology to “establish peer-to-peer emotional interactions, to ameliorate the patient’s experience, to engage children, and foster communication. It analyzes facial expressions and remembers the context of conversations,” according to the company.
Robin gets around via an omnidirectional wheel system and can react naturally to situations and interactions with children, as it uses its “face” to display emotions, and has a variety of expressions.
Made from fully recyclable bioplastic, the technology behind Robin allows it to build an associative memory and intelligently react to children by replicating patterns formed upon previous experiences (children’s emotions, patterns of conversation, facial expressions, behavioral patterns), Expper said. In other words, Robin builds follow-up dialogues considering individual features of a particular person.
The team that created Robin was comprised of those with expertise in hardware design, electrical engineering, software development, machine learning, and computer vision; their “ultimate aim” Khachikyan said, is “to bring positivity and optimism” to hospitalized children and their parents, and “to make the medical practitioners’ work easier.”
Robin’s “first house” in the US was at ABC Kids Dental Clinic, and a collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has begun; the goal of which is specifically to bring happiness to children undergoing care for cancer.
The survey results were from 424 respondents whose children/wards were treated for, or requested pediatric services, and 100% of those who interacted with Robin wanted to meet again; 84.2% measured interacting with Robin as “very good.”
Study results found that positive emotions rose in children for levels of
- Being interested
Negative emotions, such as being nervous and being scared, were reduced, as a result of interacting with Robin, said Khachikyan.
The inpatient services in which Robin was deployed included children who underwent
- Being interested
Outpatient services in which Robin was deployed included children who underwent
- CT scanning
- Blood-sampling procedures
- Short-term interventions
Intensive interviews with clinic staff and family members, a questionnaire to measure Robin’s intervention, and a phone survey of 424 respondents who requested pediatric services, helped conduct the survey.
- Behavioral data (energy level, amount of crying/screaming)
- Observational data (Approach of medical staff and parents)
- Procedure data (amount of drugs, time procedure, and preparation)
- Stress level (Facial Affective Scale, PANAS-C)
- Pain scale (Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale )
There are six Robin the Robots, with plans to continually update based on data collected during interactions, Khachikyan said. Hospitals and clinics use a subscription service to both record and update information, as well as maintenance.