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 www.emotion-modeling.info/robin. Or, to explore what it means to be human through medicine, art and science visit Wellcome Collection, London, UK. 

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