The power of a robot with a face

A patient learns to manage his diabetes with Charlie, a robot programmed at Plymouth University (Photo: Plymouth University)

A patient learns to manage his diabetes with Charlie, a robot programmed at Plymouth University (Photo: Plymouth University)

A single quality — whether or not a robot has a face  — transforms how we interact with machines, says roboticist Tony Belpaeme at TEDxPlymouthUniversity. “We humans are a social species,” he says, and he is dedicated to creating machines that can be social with us.

“A while back [my team] was approached by a hospital in Milan and they asked us if we could make a robotic alternative for their pet therapy program,” Belpaeme says. The hospital wanted a robotic pet that could be cleaned and passed from patient to patient. Belpaeme decided to go a step further: create a robot who would be a mentor and friend for patients.

The hospital asked Belpaeme to focus on one group of patients — he picked children newly diagnosed with diabetes. “It’s quite a big impact that diabetes leaves [on a child],” Belpaeme says. “You need to manage your diet very closely, your exercise; you need to monitor your blood sugar levels; you need about 1,500 injections of insulin a year. It’s quite intimidating for a young child to be diagnosed with diabetes.”

Belpaeme and team programmed a 13-inch-tall humanoid robot called NAO to teach kids how to manage their diabetes. The robot was nicknamed Charlie and met with children when they visited the hospital, asking them questions, giving them quizzes and building their confidence.

Children interact with the robot mentor, Charlie (Photo: Plymouth University)

Children interact with the robot mentor, Charlie (Photo: Plymouth University)

“What we found was that the robot is really great at being a learning buddy,” Belpaeme says. “We don’t want the robot to be a teacher because teachers already know everything and that can be very discouraging for children, so the robot actually makes mistakes … Together, [the child and robot] go on a learning exploration.”

A patient with Charlie. (Photo: Plymouth University)

A patient with Charlie. (Photo: Plymouth University)

The robot motivates children to follow doctors’ instructions and supports them in dealing with their diagnosis. “The robot becomes a friend,” Belpaeme says. “Children tend to bond with the robot … a return visit to the hospital isn’t as daunting if the robot is there.”

Further, Belpaeme’s team has found that Charlie has boosted children’s confidence. Getting a diabetes diagnosis can be scary and alienating, he says, but with Charlie, “you suddenly go from being the awkward kid in class needing injections to the cool kid that actually has a robot friend.”

Belpaeme’s team has made more robots, including one for a child recovering from a stroke who was having difficulty with physical therapy. “We decided to run the therapy through the robot,” Belpaeme says. At first, the team programmed the robot to ask the patient to try and move his arm. As time went on, the patient and the robot were doing more complicated exercises together, like squats. “The robot managed to do in six days what the medical staff hadn’t been able to do in six weeks,” Belpaeme says.

To learn more, watch Belpaeme’s whole talk below:

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