Sarah, an eight-year-old pneumonia patient at Wigmore Clinic, had barely eaten for two days. She was scared and depressed; none of the medical staff’s pleas that she try a bite of salad or meat had worked. Then Robin entered her room. Robin made eye contact with Sarah, guessing her age and gender. Robin said hello. Sarah said hello back. They talked about their favorite colors and animals and played “I spy.” 

After 20 minutes, Robin told her, “I need to recharge my battery.” 

“No, no. Don’t go,” Sarah said. “I want to play more.” 

“I will come back if you recharge yourself too,” Robin said. 

Sarah picked up her plate and started to eat. Robin, a nearly 4-foot-tall robot, smiled and wheeled away.

In the hallway, Sarah’s parents approached Karén Khachikyan, CEO and co-founder of Expper Technologies, to give him a hug. The robot’s intervention had worked. “It was a very emotional and inspiring moment for us,” Khachikyan said. “We saw how important peer-to-peer connection and interactions are.” 

Robin, an emotional-support robot for hospitalized children designed by the Armenian startup Expper Technologies, launched earlier this year in four hospitals in Armenia and expanded to ABC Kids Dental Group in Los Angeles and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital in July. Robin can speak English and Armenian, though the team is considering adding Spanish to better serve patients in California. The robot is gender-neutral, roughly the size of an 8-year-old child, and ergonomically designed to be huggable. The robot’s face is an 11-inch display screen that can show various emotions through facial expressions as well as play cartoons, animations, or interactive games. 

When he was a university student, then-26-year-old Khachikyan designed Charlie, an educational robot that was used by more than 300 children in Armenia. He theorized that, if children were emotionally connected to Charlie, they would be more motivated to learn. “We were creating a friend,” he said.

Now Khachikyan’s goal is to change the way that kids experience hospitalization — particularly, to ameliorate their feelings of loneliness and fear. Robin the robot automates emotional labor in a medical setting, not with the aim of replacing people but of augmenting them, filling in the gaps in emotional support. Why settle for a doctor, nurse, and occupational therapist when you could have all three — plus a robot to keep your fears at bay? 

Hospital workers are often overwhelmed. Ekaterina Pogrebtsova, a psychology researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, focuses on the cognitive automation processes of emotional labor in humans. She said nursing professionals often suffer from burnout because they perform emotionally intensive tasks on a daily basis. While there are techniques for lessening the strain of this work, they take time to perfect. Pogrebtsova said AI technologies like Robin can “supplement a lot of the tedious, laborious work that employees have had to do for centuries now.” 

There are some delightful (and odd) examples of robots that have tried to fulfill emotional needs in a medical setting. Many are furry and responsive. My Special Aflac Duck is a white duck that comforts children diagnosed with cancer. Kids can tap seven different cards to the duck’s chest, each of which prompts the duck to express the emotion displayed on the card. (If you put your finger in the duck’s mouth, it will pretend to eat.) PARO, a robotic baby harp seal, is covered with tactile sensors on its body and whiskers. PARO is able to recognize its own name and uses AI to repeat behaviors that, in the past, have led to its being petted. There are over 6,000 PARO units in use worldwide, mostly in patient-care settings. 

Other examples are even more surreal. Qoobo, a headless, tadpole-like cushion developed by Yukai Engineering, is designed to soothe. A robotic tail wags vigorously when the cushion is petted quickly, at a lackadaisical pace when petted slowly, and intermittently when left by itself. When the product launched in Japan in December 2018, the intended audience was women in their 20s and 30s who live alone and want a pet. Since then, Qoobo has found a market in nursing homes and among patients who have dementia or Alzheimer’s; 15,000 units have been sold in Japan and some 300 in the U.S. A smaller, more portable version, Petit Qoobo, is now available for preorder. Petit Qoobo even has a subtle heartbeat.

When Khachikyan and his team were researching the existing landscape of emotional-support robots, they noticed that many models were created as toys or tools of distraction. “There is a lack of communication,” he said. “They are not social.” 

Khachikyan’s Expper Technologies focused on creating a robotic peer who lives in the hospital and behaves like a child. “When kids see Robin, it’s like they see another kid,” Khachikyan said. Many of the children put their arms around the robot for a hug. In preliminary tests, some children grew so affectionate toward Robin that they asked if they could get sick again, in order to see it again. 

Rather than relying on preprogrammed dialogues providing generic answers to particular questions, the team at Expper trained Robin by studying the conversational patterns of two Armenian psychologists and an occupational therapist. The engineers then used behavior cloning — a machine-learning technique — to teach Robin how to mimic the professionals. The model learns the style of a psychologist’s speech and copies the way they interact with patients. 

Robin’s front-facing camera is equipped with facial-recognition technology that analyzes a child’s facial expressions, mood, age, gender, and conversation in order to build a holistic understanding of a child’s emotional state. Based on this analysis, Robin can suggest games or ask questions, in order to improve a child’s mood. An embedded memory model allows Robin to remember particular details about a patient and build follow-up conversations based on that memory. 

Mineh Badmagharian, an occupational therapist on the Expper team, described the algorithm directing Robin as a “two-player positive-sum game.” Robin and the child are working together. “The kid wants to receive positive emotions, and Robin’s objective is to maximize that,” she told Rest of World.

Last year, Khachikyan and his team raised $200,000 in initial funding from SmartGateVC, HIVE Ventures, and angel investors. They are currently in seed funding to advance the technology and begin mass-producing Robins. The robots are manufactured in Armenia, though Khachikyan said they aim to move production to China. With the success of Robin among adolescent patients, Expper is considering expanding into the field of elder care.

We tend to hear about robots and AI working in less wholesome, less emotionally involved contexts; facial recognition, surveillance, self-driving cars, and customer-service chatbots can have an eldritch underbelly. Robin and a generation of emotional-support robots show that AI can replace human emotional labor, narrowing emotional literacy gaps between robots and humans. “I believe that people need people,” Khachikyan said. “We don’t want to replace anyone with Robin. Our vision is to create a teammate.”