Charity Creates Companion Robot For Sick Children

Few things can be more isolating than a prolonged illness. While bad enough for adults, this is worse for children, who can be more emotionally and psychologically sensitive than adults. Just ask Ethan Hayes: after being diagnosed with brain cancer, his four surgeries, 30 sessions of radiation radiation therapy, and seven months of chemotherapy, he’s been separated from his school friends for over a year. But Ethan now has an unexpectedly welcome companion who can tell jokes, answer questions, and play games—a robot named Zenbo.

Ethan Hayes, age 7, and his sister Chloe, age 8, are the first to test Chai Lifeline Canada's new therapeutic robot, Zenbo. Image credit: JULIANNA PERKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail reports that a team from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology had been developing an interactive companion robot for five years. They were approached by the Toronto-based charity Chai Lifeline Canada, who wanted to take the project in an unusual direction: keeping sick children company. “One of the things that we’re hoping to do with the robot is to have a child be able to connect with somebody, almost like a little buddy who can be there for him,” said Mordechai Rothman, executive director of Chai Lifeline Canada.

This pilot project is set to last six months, and to work with several families besides Ethan’s. The Zenbo robot is more versatile and interactive than an iPad or similar device, featuring motion sensors, a touchscreen, facial recognition, and more. Such interaction can provide invaluable mental and emotional support for children, even if it’s from a robot. Thanks to the charitable efforts of Chai Lifeline Canada, this powerful resource that has helped Ethan could be available to many more people in the future.

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