Robot brings companionship to sick kids

Chloe and Ethan are participating in a math lesson by way of learning to bake cookies.

One of the most devastating side effects of a child falling ill is isolation. While visiting friends can bring much fun and joy, they can inadvertently gift the patient with germs that can overwhelm a compromised immune system. It was precisely this reason Chai Lifeline Canada launched Zenbo, a companion robot to help brighten the lives of sick children.

On January 30th, Chai Lifeline unveiled Zenbo at a news conference in Toronto. The robot, programmed by a team at Ontario Tech University faculty of business and IT, entertains and educates sick kids. The launch was held at the home of seven-year-old Ethan, who was diagnosed last January with Medulloblastoma, a cancerous brain tumour. Ethan went through four brain surgeries, travelled to Memphis, Tenn. for 30 proton radiation treatments and endured seven months of chemotherapy.

“When I was in the hospital, the social worker told me about Chai Lifeline,” said Cindi Shoot, Ethan’s mother. “They were such a great support, providing meals and a big brother who visited Ethan weekly, and every single time he was in the hospital.”

Chai Lifeline Canada supports severely ill children and their families with programs, workshops and counseling of all kinds. Their challenge has been keeping home or hospital-bound kids both free from boredom and up-to-date on their schoolwork.

About Zenbo the robot, Executive Director of Chai Lifeline Canada Mordechai Rothman explained, “This is an opportunity for us to give a child a friend who can’t get that child sick. It doesn’t come with any germs, and it’s a companion to play with.”

Ethan was home-bound and recovering from cancer until only recently when the family learned he was in recovery.

“He had a scan which was clear,” Shoot said. “When you are on the journey of pediatric cancer, it is still a journey.”

Kids love robots and young Ethan, together with his sister Chloe are no exception. During the live demonstration, the two were focused, engaged and giggling non-stop while interacting with Zenbo.

“Hello, my name is Zenbo, I’m really excited to meet you. It’s a pleasure to meet you Ethan. Thank you for having me here. So Ethan, I heard you are in Grade 2, that’s so cool. I hope we can have fun today. I want to be your new buddy. Do you want to hear a joke,” Zenbo said. With the children, Zenbo danced, told jokes, shared a story and taught a math lesson by way of baking cookies.

“Zenbo can be tailored to do anything from teaching different languages, to spelling based on the child’s age,” Rothman said. “What’s really special about our collaboration with the university is that we were able to ask Ethan what was his favourite song and what does he like to eat. And we created a support for him to have a good time.”

Family Photo: Cindi Shoot, Dave Hayes, Ethan Hayes and Chloe Shoot.

What makes Zenbo special? Migual Martin, Ontario Tech University professor and head of the development team explained. “It looks pretty nice with a beautiful smiling oval face, big eyes, round body. It’s attractive to kids. Not intimidating at all.”

Martin pointed out that the robot could be used for children, adults and elders, “It depends on what applications you put into it. This is the first time we used it with kids. We have been working on it for about three or four months and will learn so much between the interaction between humans and machines. It offers motion sensors, face recognition, proximity sensors. It can remember things about you.”

Zenbo was developed in 2016 designed by the technology company Asus imported from Taiwan. An artificial intelligence project aims to train the companionship robot to feel empathy for humans.

“One of the things we are working on is creating artificial empathy, so the robot gets to empathize with the human, learn their moods based on the vocals and body language,” Martin said. ‘Even by the choice of words, they should know how the human is feeling and then try and help the human in the best possible way.”

Chai Lifeline Canada has nearly 600 volunteers helping more than 2,000 family members Canada-wide. They plan to follow the pilot launch with the rollout of additional identical robots later in the year so that more children can benefit.