Social robots used in paediatric unit support sessions could aid the recovery of sick children, a study published today in the journal Pediatrics has found.

Researchers from the MIT Media Lab, Boston Children’s Hospital and Northeastern University deployed a variety of developmental and coping interventions across several paediatric units at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Patients aged three to ten were randomly split into three control groups: one which involved a robotic teddy bear called Huggable, one which involved a tablet-based virtual Huggable and a traditional soft teddy bear. The patients who were given Huggable displayed better mood and behavioural outcomes than those given the tablet or soft bear.

The children given Huggable experienced more positive emotions overall, got out of bed and moved around more and emotionally connected with the robot, asking it personal questions and inviting it to come back later and meet their families.

Through self-reports and questionnaires, the researchers recorded how much the patients and their families liked interacting with Huggable. Additional questionnaires assessed each patient’s mood, anxiety and perceived pain levels. Cameras were mounted in the children’s rooms to capture and analyse their speech patterns, characterising them as either joyful or sad.

A greater percentage of children and their parents responded positively to Huggable than the tablet or soft bear, with speech analysis detecting significantly more joyful expressions among the children given the Huggable robot. Their parents also noted lower levels of perceived pain among their children.

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The research team said these improved emotional, physical and verbal outcomes are all positive factors which could contribute to the recovery of hospitalised children. The social robot is designed not to replace human interaction, but add to it.

Boston Children’s Hospital paediatric psychologist Deirdre Logan said: “Child life staff provide a lot of human interaction to help normalize the hospital experience, but they can’t be with every kid, all the time. Social robots create a more consistent presence throughout the day.”

While the long-term plan is to make Huggable fully autonomous, it is currently operated remotely by a specialist stationed in the hall outside a child’s room. The specialist is able to control the robot’s facial expression, gaze and bodily actions and talk to the child through a speaker in the bear, which warped their voice to make it sound more childlike.