"It can provide empathy. It can provide some support services mostly. It'll be a distraction if nothing else and provide some activity and thoughtful conversation."
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Being hospitalized is always tough on children, but it's even harder because of the coronavirus. Young patients feel isolated because so few visitors are allowed. But what if you can have a non-human visitor who acts just like a human?
Xavier Alvarez has been in a hospital bed for weeks recovering from surgery. But when Robin the robot came to visit, the 8-year-old wanted to sing and show Robin his new dance moves.
Robin is the world's first emotionally-intelligent hospital robot. For now, a child-life specialist is picking up on Xavier's feelings and reacting, but after some test runs of Robin's onboard real-time analysis software, it'll be able to read and respond to emotions on its own.
"Robin has a register of how much happy, how much anxiety, how much fear is being projected," said pediatric surgeon Dr. Justin Wagner.
Robin can interpret facial expressions and build responsive dialogue.
Wagner and his colleagues at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital decided to rush Robin into service because so many patients were feeling isolated due to the coronavirus.
"I feel very sad and you don't get to see your family," Xavier said.
Wagner said the hospital can feel like a cold and unfamiliar environment.
"There was a very long time when the pandemic began where they said only one parent at a time and we couldn't switch," said Elizabeth Alvarez, Xavier's mom.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, child-life specialists are in high demand. Robin helps pick up some of the load.
"It can provide empathy. It can provide some support services mostly," Wagner said. "It'll be a distraction if nothing else and provide some activity and thoughtful conversation."
"Even if we don't say anything, Robin will ask a random question. It's like talking to a human," Alvarez said.
Robin was developed by Expper technologies. The goal of UCLA's study is to determine how well Robin can help children and parents cope with the stress of being hospitalized. There are only five in the world, which makes Robin quite valuable but for the kids like Xavier, it's priceless
"He puts a big smile on my face," he said.