The robot toddler that teaches diabetic children about their condition

Ask people to consider artificial emotional intelligence and chances are they'll imagine super servants and workers but another application is in medicine. We explore the relationship between AEI and health

At the ‘Feeling Emotional’ Late Spectacular event at London’s Wellcome Collection, researchers, scientists, artists and performers hosted a series of events exploring human emotion – how we feel and express ourselves through art and science.

If you were lucky enough to gain entry, you may have seen the robot infant Robin in his playpen. Robin is an autonomous robot programmed by Dr Lola Cañamero and Dr Matthew Lewis at the University of Hertfordshire to have diabetes and demonstrate certain behaviours associated with the illness.

This Emotion Modeling research project uses play and bonding activities to educate diabetic children about managing their condition.

Cañamero and Lewis invite young children to come and play with Robin and, while artificial emotional intelligence (AEI) might seem unnecessary for a healthcare project, Cañamero explains that: “Emotions are an essential component in humans and they affect pretty much everything we do: our way of thinking, our way of moving, the way we look at things and what we’re interested in is how that occurs throughout the body.”

Child caregivers

Robin is a standard off-the-shelf Aldebaran NAO robot, which are designed with emotional capabilities, but his unique personality has been created by the research team. He has been programmed so that as his blood sugar levels fluctuate, his behaviour changes, and he requires food, a drink, or a virtual shot of insulin to regulate his glucose.

Robin 1 - Ceri Jones

Image courtesy of Ceri Jones

In addition to his diabetes, Lewis coded Robin to have toddler qualities; he is affectionate and playful, has bouts of energy where he will dance and wander around, and displays curiosity about his surroundings.

“You can make a robot that is a bit like a puppet, and many of the robots that we see are like that, with very expressive faces,” says Cañamero. “But we can actually programme the robot by giving them motivations, which are really numbers that have to be kept within a range, so there’s no magic.”

“By giving it that we can have the robot do things on its own, decide what to do, what it wants to do and likes to do.” This was evident during the demonstration, as Robin tottered around freely, staring up at the crowd, asking for food, drinks, and lots of cuddles.

This naïve and curious character is essential for the study, says Lewis, explaining that: “By putting the child in a situation where they’re looking after Robin, it’s a sort of playful version of managing themselves, but because it’s a toddler, it’s very much the child who becomes the caretaker and is in charge.”

“It’s really their decisions. They’re not following instructions or anything; they are the person who makes those decisions.”

Initiative and independence

Developing a singular AEI is an expensive and complex process, so why is this preferential to simply programming a normal robot? “The robots have both motivations and emotions but these give them their own values and reasons for things,” says Cañamero.

We wanted an agent which had its own motivations and maybe didn’t want to eat the correct food

“They want to eat, for example, or when they have satisfied their hunger they might want to play, like Robin. Emotions in addition [to motivations] make them like or dislike the things they do, or the way people interact with them.”

The project focuses on children between seven and 12 years old, an age where most children are gaining greater independence from their parents, and so need the tools to deal with their condition.

“We wanted to have a situation that felt like something in the real world. And when you’re managing diabetes things don’t always go right,” explains Lewis.

“Rather than have a script where the child knows we do a certain thing and then the results are as expected, we wanted an agent which had its own motivations and maybe didn’t want to eat the correct food.”

The playpen holds a variety of healthy foods along with sweets and sugary drinks, and with no adults present, Robin could become unwell. As Lewis adds: “The child was put in a situation where they say, ‘no, you should eat this. This is good for you, you need to eat it’, which should reinforce the value that they put in diabetes management for themselves.”

Learning for life

Children respond to Robin as naturally as they would to any high-tech toy: with fascination and excitement, as well as enjoying a rare positive experience at a clinic. Cañamero feels that being endearing and also unpredictable makes Robin transcend the robot’s toy status and makes him seem more like a vulnerable younger sibling.

Robin 3 - Russell Dornan

Image courtesy of Russell Dornan

But the valuable medical insight is gained through the realism of Robin’s behaviour. Children recognise the contrast between his dancing and whooping during a glucose high (hyperglycaemia) and his tendency to sit down and moan due to a low (hypoglycaemia) from their own experiences, so they can relate to him.

Cañamero says: “They identify so they feel, ‘Okay, Robin is tired. I remember that’s very important for me and I find that very difficult’, and they want to help the robot. It makes them think how to apply the knowledge that they learn in books about diabetes.”

The Emotional Modeling project is successfully helping researchers connect with children, offering them a new and essential type of learning experience. Cañamero has been using robots in her research for many years and says that, although adults may have reservations when dealing with robots, “For children, it’s a natural thing. It’s part of their world now.”

For more information about Dr Cañamero and Dr Lewis’s Emotion Modeling project at the University of Hertfordshire, please visit Or, to explore what it means to be human through medicine, art and science visit Wellcome Collection, London, UK. 

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”