How Sheffield-made animal robots can comfort disabled children

Animal-like robots that can comfort disabled children staying in hospitals are being developed in Sheffield – with the help of young patients. Chris Burn reports.

Professor Tony Prescott is leading the Sheffield element of the robotics project.
Professor Tony Prescott is leading the Sheffield element of the robotics project.

“People think of robots being human-like but they can be all sorts of different shapes and sizes,” explains Professor Tony Prescott of his creation of animal-like companion robots.

The Professor of Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield and director of the Sheffield Robotics research institute has already won an international award at the Human-Robot Interaction Conference in Vienna for the dog-like ‘MiRo biomimetic companion robot’ he co-designed but he and his team are now gearing up for the next exciting phase of their work participating in a global research project to create the next generation of technology to help people with disabilities.

A key element of the Sheffield section of the initiative will be working with young patients cared for by Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust on designing future models and what they would like the technology to be able to do. Prescott says interaction with animals has been proved to be positive for patients of all ages but there are often barriers preventing such encounters that can be overcome through the use of robots.

“There are situations in which it is impossible to use an animal. In a lot of hospitals, it is difficult to take an animal in for various reasons. It can also be quite stressful for animals to interact with 30 to 40 strangers in a short space of time.”

Funded with a flagship Wellcome Trust Humanities and Social Sciences Collaborative Award, the £1.5 million five-year Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures project starting in January also involves the universities of Leeds, Dundee and Exeter as well as international partners in the US, Japan and Sweden.

Sheffield researchers will also be involved in developing ‘telepresence robots’ for older patients to interact with their families over video calls. Project partners in Japan are working with potential users of such technology to develop it. “We are covering both ends of the spectrum,” he says.

“Young people with disabilities are going to have very different ideas of what they would like technology for. What we hope to get out of it is a new way of better designing technology taking into account people’s ideas. The aim isn’t to have a new robot but a new idea of designing things in an appropriate way.”

He says there are potentially wider uses of animal-like robots than just in healthcare settings. “If you go back ten to 20 years, there used to be a lot of animals in classrooms but there are now much fewer because of concerns about allergies and animal wellbeing. It is almost a way of restoring the idea of a classroom pet.”

As technological advances in change the way we live and work, Prescott says universities such as Sheffield have an important role in discussing the ethics, risks and benefits around robotics and artificial intelligence given companies’ involving in using technology will often have a greater focus on its impact on their profits.

“The evidence is that robots and AI are creating well-paid and good quality jobs but at the same time we are losing some jobs, mostly lower-paid work. The overall benefit is positive but you can’t say that to someone who has just lost their job. It is a case of understanding how to retrain people.”

He says while 21st Century life is going to change, it will be a gradual process. “Already a lot of people have robot vacuum cleaners. Twenty years ago, the idea a little machine would clean the floors would be a really surprising one. The next step will be robots that can tidy at the same time as cleaning. As robots take on more roles, it will help people live independently. As you get older you are less able to do the jobs that support staying at home. It is not a case of having a human-like robot to be your robot butler but having more things like robot vacuum cleaners. It won’t be C3PO.”