Robot duck’s aim: Helps kids with cancer via power of play

A plush, robotic duck may soon become a fixture in the world of children who have cancer — a social robot that can be silly, happy, angry, scared or sick just like them, and help them cope creatively with their illness through the power of play.

The duck, developed by robotics expert Aaron Horowitz and his company, is undergoing testing and is expected to be widely distributed by the end of this year.

Horowitz said he was diagnosed as a child with human growth development deficiency and had to give himself daily injections for five years. The experience, he said, made him want to help other children with illnesses, which led to his co-founding of the Rhode Island-based company Sproutel with a partner he met at Northwestern University.

Health care facilities from children’s hospitals to nursing homes have been experimenting for more than a decade with the use of robots for social companionship and emotional health. Some devices look like quintessential robots; others are designed as cute animal toys, such as the duck and Paro, a baby seal developed by Japanese researchers to lessen a person’s stress in the same way a real pet might. The machines’ technological sophistication varies, but they have similar aims: improving patients’ psychological well-being, reminding them of health-related tasks or teaching them about health goals.

Horowitz said the first social robot his company launched was Jerry the Bear, an interactive companion for kids with diabetes. Children take care of Jerry by feeding him, giving him insulin and monitoring his blood glucose levels. They also unlock a modular diabetes curriculum geared toward kids.

“Out of this came the idea of, ‘Why can’t we do it for other types of kids?'” Horowitz said.

They turned to kids with cancer — in the U.S., almost 11,000 get such a diagnosis yearly, according to the American Cancer Society.

The robot duck is modeled after the mascot for the insurance company Aflac, which paid for its development and is branding the duck with its name. Aflac spokesman Jon Sullivan said the ducks — plush on the outside with sophisticated robotics hidden beneath a washable cover — will be given free to children diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. The duck is expected to be featured Monday at the CES gadget show in Las Vegas. Sullivan said the company intends to continue covering costs of the duck for kids, with no plans for hospitals or insurers to pay for them — unlike Jerry the Bear, which can be…

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