HitchBOT creators to study whether robots can help patients change behaviour – Hamilton

The inventors of HitchBOT, the friendly, traveling robot that delighted fans in Canada and beyond, saw the project as a way to ask the question, “Can robots trust humans?”

Now they’re teaming up again with a physician to ask a different question: “Can robots help humans to change?” It’s a project that’s part of a new collaboration between IBM and Hamilton Health Sciences — a two-year, first-of-its-kind clinical trial with medical patients about whether “social robotics” and AI can make a difference in self-regulation for behavioural change.

They’re focusing on one of the cheapest and most effective healthcare regimes — skin cancer prevention through the use of sunscreen.

And so the HitchBOT creators wondered: Can artificial intelligence and robotics help medical professionals make a difference in patient communication and behaviour? 

To get to the bottom of that question, they are using humanoid and virtual app versions of a SoftBank robot called “Pepper,” at a dermatology clinic. 

Softbank’s human-like robot ‘Pepper’ distributes a pack of tissue paper as a part-time worker during a news conference in Japan in 2015. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

“You will be thinking of the AI and Pepper as your coach,” said David Harris Smith, an assistant professor of communication at McMaster University.

For patients at the clinic, that might look like sharing with the app what your schedule is, how much time you expect to spend outside, and when might make the most sense for you to apply sunscreen. Then in turn, the app would analyze that information and remind you before leaving the house to put on sunscreen.

The project is spearheaded by Harris Smith, Frauke Zeller, professor of communication at Ryerson University and Hermanio Lima, a dermatologist and medical professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“People often think, ‘Oh, will a robot replace my doctor or my nurse?’ And we don’t see that that is the direction that…

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