Robotics

Education and health care are set for a high-tech push

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Robotics and AI are poised to fundamentally change the future of healthcare. © Elnur, Shutterstock

In a Swiss classroom, two kids are engrossed in navigating a complicated maze with the help of a slightly cute little robot. The interaction is easy and fun – it also provides researchers with valuable information about how children learn and the conditions under which information is most effectively absorbed.

Rapid improvements in intuitive human-machine interaction (HMI) are poised to initiate major changes in society. In particular, two European research projects provide an overview of how these trends may affect two core areas: education and health.

Child learning

EU funded ANIMATION, a cross-border network of universities and industry partners is exploring whether, and how, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can help us learn more effectively. One idea is around making mistakes: kids can learn by watching and correcting other people’s mistakes – and using robots to make them possible.

‘A teacher cannot make mistakes,’ said project coordinator Professor Mohamed Chetouani of the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. ‘But robots? They can. And mistakes are very useful in education.’

According to Prof Chetouani, asking questions like ‘can robots help children learn better’ is simple because learning is a complex concept. He says that, for example, the automatic assumption that students who concentrate on learning more is not necessarily true.

That’s why, from the start, this project aimed to ask smarter, more specific questions that would help identify how robots could be useful in the classroom.

ANIMATAS consists of sub-projects each led by an early-stage researcher. One of the goals of the sub-project is to better understand the learning process in children and to analyze what types of interactions help them retain information the most.

“Mistakes are very useful in education.”

– Professor Mohamed Chetouani, ANIMATAS

The role of robots

An experiment set up to investigate this question invited children to team up with the aptly named QTRobot to find the most efficient route around a map.

During practice, the robot reacts interactively with children to provide tips and suggestions. In addition, carefully measure various indicators in the child’s body language such as eye contact and direction, tone of voice and facial expressions.

As expected, the researchers did find that certain interaction patterns were associated with increased learning. With this information, they will be better able to evaluate how well children are engaging with educational materials and, in the long term, develop strategies to maximize that engagement – ​​thereby increasing learning potential.

Next steps will include looking at how to adapt this robot-enhanced learning for children with special educational needs.

‘We believe that this could be very important in this context,’ says Prof Chetouani.

Help at hand

Aki Härmä, a researcher at Philips Research Eindhoven in the Netherlands, believes that robotics and AI will fundamentally change healthcare.

“Health care can be 24/7.”

Aki Härma, PhilHumans

In the European Union funded PhilHumans In the project he coordinates, early-stage researchers from five universities across Europe are working with two commercial partners – R2M Solution in Spain and Philips Electronics in the Netherlands – to study how innovative technologies can improve people’s health.

AI enables new services and ‘means healthcare can be 24/7,’ says Härmä.

He points to the huge potential of technology to help people manage their own health from home: apps that can track a person’s mental and physical condition and spot problems early, chatbots that can provide advice and propose diagnoses, and algorithms for robots to safely navigate around places. stay.

Empathic bot

The project, which started in 2019 and will last until the end of 2023, consists of eight sub-projects each led by a doctoral student.

One sub-project, overseen by Phillips researcher Rim Helaoui, looks at how mental health practitioners’ specific skills – such as empathy and open-ended questions – can be coded into an AI-powered chatbot. This could mean that people with mental health conditions will be able to access relevant support from home, potentially at a lower cost.

The team quickly realized that replicating multiple psychotherapy skills within a chatbot would involve challenges that could not be solved all at once. Instead it focuses on one main challenge: how to build bots that display empathy.

“This is an important first step in getting people to feel that they can open up and share,” says Helaoui.

As a starting point, the team came up with an algorithm capable of responding with the appropriate tone and content to convey empathy. This technology has not yet been turned into an application or a product, but provides building blocks that can be used in many different applications.

Rapid progress

PhilHumans is also exploring other possibilities for the application of AI in healthcare. Algorithms are being developed that can use ‘camera vision’ to understand the task a person is trying to perform and analyze the surrounding environment.

The ultimate goal is to use these algorithms in a home assistant robot to help people with cognitive impairment complete everyday tasks successfully.

One thing that has helped the whole project, says Härmä, is the speed with which other organizations have developed natural language processors with impressive capabilities, such as OpenAI’s GPT-3. The project hopes to take advantage of the unexpected rapid improvements in these and other areas to advance even faster.

Both ANIMATAS and PhilHumans are actively working to expand the boundaries of intuitive HMIs.

In doing so, they have provided a valuable training ground for young researchers and given them important exposure to the commercial world. Overall, the two projects ensure that a new generation of highly skilled researchers is equipped to lead the way forward in HMI and its potential applications.

The research in this article was funded through the European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).


This article was originally published on Horizon, the European Union Research and Innovation magazine.


Horizon magazine delivers the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.

Horizon magazine delivers the latest news and features on thought-provoking science and innovative EU-funded research projects.

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