New research funding for project to reduce children’s medical discomfort

Published: 25 February 2020

A project which aims to develop robots to reduce children’s distress during medical procedures is one of 10 ‘responsible artificial intelligence’ initiatives to receive newfunding.

A University of Glasgow-led project which aims to develop robots to reduce children’s distress during medical procedures is one of 10 ‘responsible artificial intelligence’ initiatives to receive new funding.

The projects will bring together researchers from the UK and Canada to share in £8.2m from the UK Research and Innovation Fund for International Collaboration and three Canadian federal research agencies.

Each project is underpinned by a commitment to the responsible development of artificial intelligence. These include creating technology to better detect and monitor global disease outbreaks, helping neurosurgeons perform surgery, informing the development of AI transportation systems for an ageing population, countering abusive online language, and improving labour market equality.

Dr Mary Ellen Foster of the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science will partner with Dr Samina Ali of the University of Alberta on a project dubbed ‘Using AI-Enhanced Social Robots to Improve Children's Healthcare Experiences’.

Over the next three years, they will develop a robust, adaptive, socially intelligent robot designed to distract children during painful clinical procedures, such as having blood taken in an accident and emergency setting.

The humanoid robot, an existing off-the-shelf system called Nao, will be programmed to detect the child's state and adapt its behaviour to take the patient's attention away from the procedure, for example by talking, singing, dancing, or telling stories.

The robot's effectiveness will be evaluated with a clinical trial in two Canadian hospitals during the project’s final year.

Dr Foster said: “We know that children experience pain and distress in clinical settings daily, and that distraction can be an effective strategy to reduce negative consequences, both at the time of the procedure and in the long term.

“We’re pleased and proud to have won the support of funders on both sides of the Atlantic, and I’m very much looking forward to working with my collaborators in the UK and in Canada to explore how AI can help children in a clinical setting.”

ESRC’s Executive Chair, Professor Jennifer Rubin, said: “The increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation in our lives is generating a range of challenges and opportunities that demand better understandings and sophisticated solutions. This raises social, technical, and cultural questions that the social sciences in collaboration with other disciplines can help address.

“Recent work has revealed that there is not enough interdisciplinary collaboration in AI research, and that building bridges between the mathematical and computational sciences and other disciplines will enrich the field.

“Collaborating with Canadian funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) and other UKRI research councils (AHRC, EPSRC and MRC) on these projects using an interdisciplinary approach will contribute to the inclusive, responsible and impactful development of AI technologies, and address important economic, societal, health and global challenges.” 

The projects will encourage new, interdisciplinary and international partnerships in responsible AI research, and promote enhanced infrastructure and training for researchers in Canada and the UK. They will each run for three years and started on 1 February 2020.

In addition to Dr Foster and Dr Ali, the project’s co-investigators include:

  • Dr Ron Petrick, Heriot-Watt University
  • Dr Jennifer Stinson and Dr Sasha Litwin, University of Toronto
  • Dr Frauke Zeller, Ryerson University
  • Dr David Harris Smith, McMaster University
  • Dr Jennifer Parker, Dalhousie University

First published: 25 February 2020