Cheeky Ruben is just seven and learning to read. But thanks to his new knee-high buddy Charlie robot he can expertly measure his blood sugar and count carbohydrates in a glass of milk.
Such skills could be life-savers for the blonde Dutch boy diagnosed with childhood diabetes just over a year ago.
Just like other kids his age, he enjoys birthday parties, riding his bike or playing video games. But these can all play havoc with his blood sugar levels, and unlike his peers, Ruben has to learn how to navigate such potential minefields while managing a disease he will have all his life.
There are roughly some 6,000 children across The Netherlands with Type 1 childhood diabetes. And at least one a year dies from the disease.
Now thanks to a unique collaboration between healthcare professionals, robotics engineers and academics in the Netherlands, Italy, German and Britain, families struggling to learn about the illness and manage it on a daily basis have a new life coach on their side.
He’s a friendly red-and-white robot called Charlie, with arms and legs, big round eyes and speakers disguised as ears, who can talk and dance.
Some 40 Dutch children have so far been involved in the testing—the first phase of a four-year EU-funded project launched in March 2015.
Young patients can chat with Charlie during clinic visits—currently two hospitals in The Netherlands and one in Italy are participating. And the kids have access to Charlie’s avatar twin whenever they want on their tablets and computers at home.
Parties awash with cake, or trips to kid-friendly fast food places, sports days, even an hour on a favourite video game can all send blood sugar levels soaring dangerously too high or too low.
Charlie can talk—in Dutch and Italian at the moment—but the questions are also written out on a tablet in front of the child, with an answer and a line “true or false?”
The mini robot is currently aimed at children between the ages of seven—as they can read a little—and 13 to 14.
Unlike the more common Type 2 diabetes which develops more often in adults and results from unhealthy lifestyles, the exact cause of Type 1 is unknown. Genetics play a role, but researchers believe there is also an as yet unknown environmental factor, such as possibly a slow acting virus.
The $4.5 million project called Personal Assistant for a Healthy Lifestyle (PAS) is a collaborative effort between the Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, TNO, and its Italian and German counterparts FCSR and DFKI as well as TU Delft university and Imperial College in London.
For children acutely aware they are different from others, Charlie also provides “social support, that helps them to express their feelings also when they feel bad... they can tell the robot and share some experiences”.
Charlie builds up a profile of each child, so he gets to know them and their likes and dislikes.
Researchers are now expanding the trials to better assess the needs of children and parents, as well as improving Charlie’s voice and making his interactions more conversational.