The robot that staves off loneliness for chronically ill children

As a rule of thumb, the best ideas are the simplest. That’s easy to forget in an age of rapid technological innovation, when the tendency is to be led by capability rather than need.

For as Karen Dolva, co-founder of the Norwegian startup No Isolation, says: “There are a lot of engineers who don’t want to make something useful – they want to make something cool.”

Dolva, a 26-year-old who studied computer science and interaction design at Oslo University, is not one of them. She and her two co-founders – Marius Aabel and Matias Doyle – are all about utility. As their company name suggests, they are looking to end human isolation. It’s a massive undertaking, but they’ve started with a distinct and overlooked group: sick children.

I have security now because of AV1. She gave me hope in a very dark time

Jade Gadd

When a child suffers a long-term or chronic illness, one of the greatest psychological problems they confront is isolation from their peers and schoolmates. It’s possible to keep up with schoolwork, but not the social interplay and group dynamics that are a critical part of school life.

Dolva realised just how important and neglected this issue of social solitude was when she met a woman who lost her teenage daughter to cancer. She and her partners researched the problem, speaking to children with a multitude of different health conditions and came up with an answer: a telepresence robot called AV1.

A plain white bust, with a vaguely sci-fi robot visage, it was designed to sit on a vacated classroom desk and be the eyes and ears of the sick child at home in bed. The child can see and hear the teacher and the rotating head of the robot also offers a 360-degree view of the class.

The AV1’s head flashes blue when the child wants to ask a question and there is even a whispering mode that enables the child to speak, way out of the teacher’s earshot, to a neighbouring classmate.

When I met Dolva in a north London cafe, I tried out the system by speaking, via an AV1, to her colleague in Oslo. By the use of elementary controls on a laptop, I was able to look around the Oslo office and chat to the company secretary.

It’s hardly a breakthrough in technology, but the early signs are that it could have profound effect with its target consumers. Just over 200 of the AV1s are being used in Scandinavia, a few in Holland and there is already one user in Britain. In 12 months’ time, Dolva expects that figure to be between 2,000 and 4,000.


Karen Dolva: the AV1 could also be used to help older people suffering from social isolation. Photograph: noisolation.com

Seventeen-year-old Jade Gadd from Durham suffers from hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a particularly debilitating condition that means any system in her body can fail at any time. Her parents heard about AV1 and got in touch with No Isolation. The robot costs around £2,200, with a small subscription for unlimited data and insurance.

“I have security now because of AV1,” says Jade in an email. “She gave me hope in a very dark time. She has allowed me to make commitments that previously I would have been too worried about not being able to meet. As a teenager, it is incredibly reassuring to know this assistive technology is available and can help me forge my future.”

Jade, who plans to go to university, something she feared she wouldn’t be able to do, speaks of AV1 as female, because users tend to award a gender to their robot, as well as customise it. She’s even given hers a name – Bee – and its own Facebook page. For someone as housebound as Jade, Bee offers more than a presence in a classroom – she also provides a window on the world at large. Her mother takes Bee for journeys in the car, where she can chat to her daughter, who can see the passing streets, and to coffee shops, where strangers often stop and ask questions.

“The best times I’ve ever had with Bee have been when I didn’t even feel like I was using her,” says Jade. “I just felt like I was really there.”

For her, the AV1 is useful and cool.

Something like one in a 100 children are away from school for at least two months a year, so the market for AV1 is potentially very large, with around 35,000 pupils fitting the criterion in the UK alone. Dolva envisages a situation in which schools buy or hire several robots that are transferred between pupils as and when the need arises.

But she’s not stopping with sick schoolchildren. The next group she wants to bring out of social isolation is senior citizens. The solution No Isolation is working on, says Dolva, is going to be very different to AV1.

“Kids have a base,” she says. “With school, there’s a network. You don’t necessarily see that with seniors. Of course there are also mobility issues, memory loss and technology fear. Seniors are a much more diverse group. A 12-year-old is very much a 12-year-old. Two 85-year-olds can be extremely different in their motivation and what family they have around them.”

Again, the secret to success, Dolva believes, is in consulting users about their real needs. Her dream is to end social isolation completely and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. This is one startup that is not looking for a quick buy-out.

“It’s a problem we’ve dedicated our lives to,” she says, with a tear in her eye. “It’s what we’re going to be doing for the next 50 years.”

from Artificial intelligence (AI) | The Guardian http://ift.tt/2fD0ldl

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