Researchers develop robot friend to support children

A team of researchers led by CWI will investigate the use of robots in order to emotionally support children that suffer from cancer. The robots must act as a personal, social friend for the children at times their parents cannot be around.

Publication date: 08-06-2017

A team of researchers led by CWI will investigate the use of robots in order to emotionally support children that suffer from cancer. The robots must act as a personal, social friend for the children at times their parents cannot be around. The project ‘Improving Childhood Cancer Care when Parents Cannot be There’ is financed by KWF Kankerfonds, the former Stichting STW (now: NWO Domein TTW) and the TKI Life Sciences & Health and co-financed by 4 private partners. The project started at TU Delft earlier this year, CWI and AMC will follow in summer and fall 2017.

Approximately 800 children are being treated for cancer in the Netherlands each year. This often is a stress- and fearful experience for them. Treatments that do not allow parents around, for example because of harmful radiation, have to be endured by the children on their own. The stress children experience during these treatments can cause impediments and can be a traumatic experience for the patients with harmful longterm psychological effects. The research team wants to reduce this feeling of stress by developing a robot friend for the children. The robot friend can continuously accompany the patients, even when their parents cannot be there. He will prepare the child for medical interventions, determine the emotional state and distract the child with games and short conversations in order to reduce sadness and fear.  

“In order to make this happen, we need groundbreaking research in the area of human-robot interaction and machine learning”, says principle investigator Peter Bosman of CWI. “To reach our goal, we have to achieve new results in the area of recognition of emotions by robots for example. The robot will have to remain interesting for the child, and not repeat itself all the time. His behavior will have to be adapted to the needs of the child.”

CWI will train the software in cooperation with private partner ASolutions, in order to derive the emotional state of the child from facial expressions, speech and movements. TU Delft will develop innovative robot-human interaction software in cooperation with private partners ASolutions, Focal Meditech, Cancer Health Coach en Brocacef. . The Emma Kinderziekenhuis AMC (EKZ), the Prinses Máxima Centrum (PMC) and the Vereniging Ouders, Kinderen & Kanker (VOKK) will provide the researchers with experience from practice and are involved in testing and developing the robot.

“We think a personal and social friend can get the child through hard times”, says Bosman. “The less scary the hospital experience, the better the outcome of the treatment and the higher the quality of life for the child.”

The project ‘Improving Childhood Cancer Care when Parents Cannot be There’ is part of the STW-KWF programme Technology for Oncology of the former Stichting STW en KWF Kankerbestrijding, TKI Life Sciences & Health doubles the budget.

News item in Dutch