Edmonton researcher wants to create a robot to help children deal with pain

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Edmonton researcher wants to create a robot to help children manage pain

With the help of the MEDi robot, Dr. Samina Ali (center) wants to ease the pain and stress in hospitalized children.

After some success with the use of a rudimentary robot to distract children and soothe them during certain procedures, the Children's Hospital Stollery in Edmonton wants to help develop a more personable robot to better help its young patients.

The original robot, called MEDi, was first used in 2017 to entertain children by performing various activities, such as singing, guiding a meditation, dancing or telling jokes.

Using artificial beings to support children is part of a research program led by pediatrician and director of the Department of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the University of Alberta, Dr. Samina Ali. Her goal is to alleviate pain and stress in children in the hospital.

The reason she wants to perfect the robot is that the first version still offered the same 7 minutes of interaction, regardless of the context, she explains. MEDi's successor will have a facial and verbal recognition system so it knows how to react when a child is upset or refuses to interact, she adds.

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Programming of the new robot began in 2020, in a project involving 6 universities. In Canada, the University of Alberta, Metropolitan University of Toronto, McMaster University and the University of Toronto have pitched in. Two Scottish institutions are also involved, namely the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University.

Together, the six institutions are working on the development of artificial intelligence, ethical standards and medical certification that will enable MEDi's successor to interact with hospitalized children.

Professor Mary Ellen Foster, of the School of Computer Science at University of Glasgow, however, prefers to speak of brain transplantation, rather than succession. We build his brain, she explains.

She adds that cameras will allow the robot to see the child's movements and make choices accordingly. What we're doing is telling the robot what's going on right now and so it can make its own decisions.

The prototype is already well advanced and testing has already begun, notes Mary Ellen Foster.

With information from Kashmala Fida Mohatarem and Edmonton AM

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