A future Dr. Feelgood?
"If kids are sick long, it frequently happens that they are forgotten by their classmates/'former Children's University Hospital CEO Conrad Muller said in 2014. "This is the youthful world, which is very fast. For sick children, it is very difficult, because they are at the mercy of [their ailment]. The child should come out from the role of victim."
Such a role is now a long shot for Jonas, who has stepped out from the shadows with the help of a high-tech robot named Nao. Resembling an armored-up Big Hero 6 (but decidedly smaller), Nao allows sick children to stay socially connected to their class during their illness.
"Born" in 2014, Nao was used for the first time at Children's University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, to help Jonas remain socially active during his cancer battle. Studies have shown that children suffering from serious diseases are prone to psychosocial adjustment problems including poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and poor social skills.
"I think it supports the healing process, especially in longer hospital stays," said Muller, who now directs the private health clinic Hirslanden Klink Zurich (Switzerland). "He [Nao] should help support the resilience of children ... not only the children, but the whole environment. It's called Resilianz: the positivity to deal with the situation and the ability to remain in a social network."
Indeed, social integration can be difficult for children fighting serious diseases but the effort is definitely worth the reward. An Ohio State University experiment with rats showed that social interactions act as a buffer against stress and promote wound healing, while isolation hinders recovery.
Nao helps sick children stay connected socially by videoconferencing them with their academic peers. The 2-foot-tall robot physically attends school, broadcasting lessons through a head-mounted Samsung smartphone that also transmits live video of the absentee student. The patient controls his 6.6-pound proxy with a tablet, remotely commanding Nao to sit, stand, stretch, nod, or shake his head, raise his hand, and even cross his arms in frustration (or anger).
Nao also features one-way videoconferencing for days when his operator is too ill to appear on screen. In those instances, the patient can select a smiley face or sad face to convey his emotions and talk with his classmates (through Nao) by simply typing sentences on the tablet.
Classwork is relatively straightforward, with the child using his tablet to complete a worksheet photographed by the teacher. The student can also participate in daily lessons, ask questions, and contribute to group discussions--just as he would under normal circumstances.
"Jonas is the first with an avatar in school," Muller noted. "So far, everything has gone [well]. The children well-received Jonas' robot. Now, it must be the norm--a robot in the classroom and a child served [by it] at home so he is an active member of class."
And mobile member as well: Nao can go anywhere his operator desires, whether it be the playground, different classroom, or school trip. The robot can even be shuttled home to keep the patient connected to family once hospital visiting hours have ended.
Since his debut in Basel two years ago, Nao has extended his services to three other university hospitals and 20 wards. The digital scholar was developed by Samsung and Kindercity (aVolketswil, Switzerland-based interactive "science city" for children) in partnership with telecommunications giant Swisscom AG.
"In the [robotics] laboratory at Kindercity, the search robot was already in use for some time, and we saw how emotionally children responded to his touch," said Sandrine Gostanian, managing director of Kindercity and board chair of Avatarion Technology, a Swiss startup created from an alliance of European robotics companies.
"Nao moves children," Jean-Christophe Gostanian, Avatarion CEO, added. "We wanted to use the fact that the robot moves children to help them get better ..."
It certainly has worked for Jonas, who describes Nao as a "funny mixture of Skype and a remote-controlled toy car."
"It is great to see how eagerly and what a joy Jonas has [using Nao]," the boy's father, Thomas K., told Swiss media. "If he's on the tablet making the robot do something, he lacks any thoughts of his disease or therapies."
Michael Barbella * Managing Editor