Robots could aid rehabilitation of young patients

Plymouth University is leading a four-year project worth €8.3m (£6.9m) to develop robots that form memories and interact socially with humans.

The European Commission-funded work is hoping to overcome traditional limitations in artificial intelligence by building social cognition for the robots. To achieve this, the robots will be connected to internet-based programmes with expanded computational power.

The ALIZ-E project will involve eight universities and institutions across the continent, as well as a hospital in Milan that is hoping to use the robots in the rehabilitation of young patients.

Plymouth University will focus on aspects relating to memory.

Project leader Dr Tony Belpaeme said: ‘The aim of the ALIZ-E project is to explore how human-robot interactions can be extended from minutes to the scale of days, thus forging longer-term constructive bonds between robot and user.

‘The ALIZ-E project will use the principles of embodied cognitive robotics to create agents capable of sustaining believable, in-depth social relationships with young users over an extended, potentially discontinuous, timeframe.’

According to Plymouth University, an important limitation of robots is the size of their on-board processors, so the team is hoping to create a system that will enable the robots to store and recall information, and modify their behaviour based on previous experiences.

Dr Belpaeme said the ALIZ-E programme would look to develop a viable alternative to animal-assisted therapy (AAT), a practice whereby children in hospital are given animal companions during serious, long-term illnesses.

He said: ‘We will specifically explore robot-child interaction, capitalising on children’s open and imaginative responses to artificial ‘creatures’. When a child is in hospital and has to learn how to manage a long-term condition such as diabetes, it becomes very important to develop effective communication.

‘The theory is that the robot acts as a companion and a communication channel between patient, parents and hospital staff. We will essentially be taking robots out of the lab and putting them to the test in a health education role with young diabetic patients in a busy paediatric department at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan.’

There are currently 20 of the robots being worked on across the partnership. Each weighs 4.3kg and stands 58cm tall.