Seven-year-old Ethan Hayes and his older sister, Chloe, sit on their family room floor in Toronto’s east end, dutifully engaged with their new guest.
After story time, a dance party and some math games, the kids become curious. They start to poke and ask questions, and Zenbo, their new companion robot, is happy to oblige, rolling around the room and telling jokes.
It gets its biggest laugh with, “How does the train eat? It goes choo choo."
Zenbo the companion robot is a pilot project from Toronto-based charity Chai Lifeline Canada, an organization that supports families with children going through serious illness, in partnership with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The little googly-eyed robot is designed to entertain kids stuck at home or in the hospital, even helping them with their school work.
Ethan, who just started Grade 2 after a year off battling brain cancer, was chosen to be the robot’s first test child, with a brief visit at his home in January. The pilot project will last six months and will see Zenbo and other robots like it interact with several families.
Illness is extremely isolating, said Mordechai Rothman, executive director of Chai Lifeline Canada. “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,” he said.
Zenbo was programmed by a team from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Their research for creating a companion robot that is at once interactive and cybersecure had already been in the works for about five years before Chai Lifeline approached the group last September.
With motion sensors, facial recognition, a touch screen and more, Zenbo can interact with kids beyond the limits of an iPad app, hanging out with them like a digital friend.
And when a child is battling a serious illness, they need all the support they can get, said Cindi Shoot, Ethan’s mother. Her son was diagnosed with medulloblastoma cancer in his brain and spine just more than a year ago, and has since gone through four surgeries, 30 proton treatments (a type of radiation therapy) at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and seven months of chemotherapy.
“For children who’ve had a chronic physical illness in childhood, there is an increase in depression and anxiety two times what we would normally see as adults,” said Nikki Martyn, head of the early childhood studies program at the University of Guelph-Humber. Hospitals such as the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto have developed entire departments to combat the mental-health impacts of pain and isolation in their young patients, focusing on the importance of connection, whether human or robot.
“I think that [the robot] probably will be a wonderful substitute, but it can’t be everything, because the human connection is still really important,” Dr. Martyn said.
As for Ethan and his family, Zenbo can return any time he wants, they said.