Automation and robotics have come a long way since George Devol built the Unimate in 1954. With the development of modern technology, robots are being widely incorporated in various industries including manufacturing, transportation, astronomical research, medicine and so on. In recent years, however, automation has seamlessly integrated itself into the field of medicine to help advance medical research as well as surgical procedures. Moreover, they have displayed positive results while assisting in therapy and rehabilitation. These are empathetic robots and have been in use in medical facilities to help patients recover and aid in the care of older or physically/mentally challenged individuals.
With a similar motive as the nucleus, Armenian start-up company Expper Technologies have invested long hours and expertise in creating Robin - a friendly companion robot for children. MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) spoke with Karen Khachikyan, CEO and co-founder, Expper Technologies, about the company’s marvelous and innovative creation.
Children tend to undergo challenging experiences when faced with health issues that require them to be hospitalized. Many lack emotional support during their medical treatment and others are plagued by anxiety and distress because they don’t know what to expect while being treated. As a result, children often feel isolated and lonely. Here's where Robin comes into play.
Robin is an emotional robot, who provides peer-to-peer interaction as it cares for children’s mental well-being during their treatment. “Robin plays interactive games, tells funny stories, also explains medical procedures and shows the usage of medical tools,” Khachikyan told MEAWW. “During the painful interventions, Robin distracts children and reduces their perception of pain.”
At first glance, Robin does remind you of Pixar's Wall-E, with its adorable googly eyes and a child-friendly design that easily appeals to children, reassuring them that the robot is here to be their confidante. Robin helps children to comprehend the hospital setting in a more feasible manner, as well as medical procedures, which in turn helps cut down on prep time and improves their emotional state of mind.
The idea for Robin was born out of Khachikyan’s childhood yearning for a dog as a companion. When he pondered over the idea, he realized that many children share a similar desire to fight off the loneliness they may feel when their parents are busy with work. Giving it some more thought he realized children in hospitals would long for such a companion to get them through a challenging day. “They are scared, as they are far from their homes and friends and forced to be in a stressful and uncomfortable environment,” said Khachikyan. Robin was the answer, a robot with a name that would catch on and reflect its mission of spreading smiles and rendering emotional support.
Robin was designed by a highly-proficient consortium of individuals, combining experts in the fields of hardware design, electrical engineering, software development, machine learning and computer learning, who’ve had years worth of experience in their work. Besides the robust technical capacity, the team also comprises experts in clinical and pediatric psychology in addition to public health and clinical researchers. The team was founded in 2017 and collectively raised $200,000 in funds to invest in developing Robin.
The first of its kind, Robin is made out of bio-plastic and uses a unique form of interaction to help children overcome stress and anxiety that often accompanies hospital visits. “We are developing AI-based patent-pending technology to build peer-to-peer emotional interactions between Robin and children,” Khachikyan explained. “This technology utilizes reinforcement learning to anchor relevant emotional reactions by analyzing facial expressions and context of conversations. This allows to build an associative memory and intelligently react by replicating patterns formed upon previous experiences.” In other words, Robin constructs follow-up dialogues by himself, while considering individual features of a particular person.
Expper Technologies put its brainchild to the test last year, by deploying Robin at Wigmore Medical’s (UK) Pediatric Clinic in Yerevan, Armenia. The successful pilot study yielded them positive results and won the hearts of 120 kids who had been receiving treatment at the clinic. The study showed an increase in the happiness levels in kids by more than 26% and a reduction in stress level by 34%. In some cases, Robin decreased the time of medical procedures by up to 40% as children were less stressed and more cooperative. 100% of those who interacted with Robin divulged that they would love to meet him again. In conclusion, Robin managed to increase patients’ and families’ satisfaction with hospital services by 14.7%.
“Seeing how Robin helps children and makes them feel better is the most important thing for us,” Khachikyan revealed, his face breaking out into a smile as he recalled various instances where parents thanked him and his team profusely for developing Robin and making their children happy. “We had cases where Robin helped children to eat after refusing to take food. The smiles on children’s faces when they play with Robin is the unlimited source of motivation for us.”
The latest development in the company's plans for Robin is its deployment at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, based in Los Angeles, California. Robin will be a boon to the hospital staff especially in these unprecedented times where we are faced with a deadly pandemic. "Under current circumstances, children are much more isolated at the hospitals as the visitations have been strictly limited and the medical staff even avoids interacting with patients, because of the risk of spreading the virus," said Khachikyan. "UCLA pediatrics team will be using Robin firsthand in the next couple of weeks to help children cope with the current situation." Expper Technologies hopes to deploy up to 10 robots per hospital.
Robin is also a proud partner of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), helping kids with cancer undergo medical treatments without feeling lonely or stressed. Expper Technologies was previously a part of the UNDP ImpactAim Venture Accelerator, a backbone for start-ups and innovators that provides expertise, access to professional networks, funding, and universal field reach. "Partnering with UNDP we are planning to provide Robin to public hospitals in Armenia. This collaboration can impact thousands of children yearly bringing comfort and joy to them during the daunting process of hospitalization," said Khachikyan.
In the future, Khachikyan hopes that they can branch out into making empathetic robots to care for the elderly in hospitals and rehabilitation who are in need of emotional support. But for now, their focus is Robin and the hospitalized children. "With Robin, we are going to change children’s perception of the hospital and significantly improve their experience in hospital settings," he added.