Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Probo is No Toy

Several years in the making and a huge investment by the Brussels
region, the project of the Robotics and Multibody Research Group at
Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Brussels Free University) is a
fully-functioning robot with the ability to read your emotions and
respond in kind. Called Probo, the 60-centimetre tall “huggable robot”
will debut at the end of this year in the children’s ward of the
university hospital.

Brussels Anty Foundation, which works to improve the experiences of
kids in hospitals, came to the university a few years ago with a
proposal to create a robot that could comfort children by understanding
their emotional and physical traumas and even explain medical
procedures to them. Probo is equipped with cameras in his eyes and with
audio programmes, so it can actually assess a child’s emotions. “Vision
analysis is used to recognise facial expressions and then translate
those into emotions,” explains Jelle Saldien, an engineer working on
the project. “Audio analysis can identify the intensity and pitch of a
child’s speech. If you combine the two, you have some idea of the
emotional state – if a child is calm or angry.”

Probo will also be able to respond to children appropriately with
its own facial expressions and speech that correspond to happiness,
sadness or confusion. “There are no real words, so it’s not really a
language,” says Saldien. “But it can communicate emotions with sounds –
like the Teletubbies do.” Through the use of artificial intelligence,
programmers can actually train the robot to improve its recognition and
response skills.

Speaking of Teletubbies, the Brussels’ robot will also be fitted
with a screen in its stomach to show children videos explaining medical
procedures they will undergo and “which crazy, scary machines they will
see,” says Saldien. “The robot can prepare the children so we can
reduce their fear before medical examinations.” Kids will also be able
to play computer games on Probo, and older kids can surf the internet.
Eventually, you could have a Probo sit in a classroom and focus on the
teacher and the blackboard and relay the images to the child in the
hospital, so he or she could continue with school.

But can an expensive robot really perform services that medical
staff can’t? “You have to give children information in a special way,”
explains Saldien. “When they are really young, they are living in a
fantasy world. You have to sustain that world, even when they are in
the hospital. Otherwise, it can be really traumatic for them.”

Hence Probo’s look and feel. To children, he is a big stuffed toy.
The name is derived from the Latin proboscidea, a zoological order that
includes a number of extinct species and now includes only elephants.
Of course, “robo” refers to its own modern species, making Probo a mix
of an ancient past and a technological future. Kids get a kick out of
such a fantastical creature.

Currently, robotics are being employed in other parts of the world
to perform tests, particularly with autistic children. Probo is only
one of two in the world, though, that is “huggable” – Japan has a baby
seal version they are using with children and the elderly.

The ultimate goal is to have Probos scattered throughout hospitals
in Belgium. But only one is expected to be serviceable this year. “Then
we need to build more prototypes and do a lot of testing and see what
is working, what isn’t, what could be improved,” says Saldien. “The
vision and audio software will be upgraded gradually, so the robot
becomes more and more autonomous. But for now, the main aspect is
really just safe interaction.”

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