Social robots can lead to more positive emotions in sick children

Interacting with a robotic teddy bear invented at MIT boosted young patients’ positive emotions, engagement, and activity level.


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Over the past two decades, social robots have become an emerging field where there are many things still to work on. This field not only requires knowledge in mechanics, control, artificial intelligence, systems, etc. but also in psychology, design, ethics, etc.

In a new study, MIT researchers investigated different scenarios in therapy or education where social robots could be a useful tool for children. The study demonstrates that using “social robots” in pediatric units at hospitals can benefit children. It can be used in support sessions to help reduce sick children’s anxiety, pain, and other distress in hospital setting.

Researchers from the MIT Media Lab, in collaboration with Northeastern University, deployed a robotic teddy bear, called Huggable, across several pediatric units at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Huggable is a plush teddy bear developed in 2006 with a screen depicting animated eyes. It is currently operated remotely by a specialist in the hall outside a child’s room. Using custom software, a specialist can control the robot’s facial expressions and body actions, direct its gaze, and also talk through a speaker.

Huggable: A social robot for pediatric care
Huggable: A social robot for pediatric care

For the study, the team randomly divided over 50 hospitalized children into three groups interventions. The first group involved Huggable, the second included a tablet-based virtual Huggable, and a traditional plush teddy bear in the last.

During the interventions, involving Huggable and kids aged between 3 to 10 years, a specialist sang nursery rhymes to younger children through the robot and moved its arms during the song. Older kids played the I Spy game, where they have to guess an object in the room described by the specialist through Huggable.

The overall results found that a higher percentage of children enjoyed playing with Huggable more than with the avatar or traditional teddy bear. Additionally, parents noted lower levels of perceived pain among their children. In short, children in the Huggable intervention group experienced more positive emotions.

Although it was a small study, researchers said that this is the first study that explored the benefit of social robotics in hospitalized ill children in pediatric units.

We want to continue thinking about how robots can become part of the whole clinical team and help everyone,” study co-author Sooyeon Jeong said.

When the robot goes home, we want to see the robot monitor a child’s progress. If there is something clinicians need to know earlier, the robot can let the clinicians know, so they’re not surprised at the next appointment that the child hasn’t been doing well.

Further, researchers are hoping to zero in on which specific patient populations may benefit the most from the Huggable interventions. “We want to find the sweet spot for the children who need this type of extra support,” says first author Deirdre Logan, a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.