The robot helping ill kids to beat loneliness — and keep learning

For children battling long-term illness, coping with physical pain is not their only challenge: being away from school also means missing out on time with friends, and that can be tough. And parents often worry about the impact months of missed classes will have on their child’s education.
That is where a classroom robot called AV1 comes in. Its job is to act as the eyes, ears and voice for children with long-term illnesses who cannot make it to class.
It allows Elliot Smith to stay in touch with his friends and to keep up with his lessons. He controls it from home using a tablet computer, and can listen or talk. If he wants to ask a question, he lights up the robot’s head to alert the teacher.
“I was sort of worried about what the other students would think of the robot. They were definitely surprised by it,” the 12-year-old, who is using the AV1 while recovering from brain cancer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Schools can rent a robot or buy one for £2,200 ($3,065). Smith’s AV1 — which his classmates christened ‘Bob’ — was paid for through a mix of fundraising and philanthropy.
The robot looks like a garden gnome that has gone through tech giant Apple’s minimalist design process. They are made by a Norwegian social enterprise called No Isolation, which was founded to reduce involuntary isolation.
Across Europe, 370 young people between the ages of eight and 20 use an AV1. Most live in Scandinavian countries.
The organisation’s founder, 27-year-old Karen Dolva, who studied computer science at university, started No Isolation after a friend working as a nurse in a children’s unit described it as “quite miserable”.
After researching the issue, Dolva met Anne Fi Troye, whose teenage daughter had died from cancer. Troye told Dolva about the experience, and of the devastating effect of isolation for children recovering at home.
“They’re locked away, forgotten. And when they get well they’re just pushed out into the world and everyone assumes they’re going to be happy now that they’re well again,” Dolva told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

GROWING APART
Research by the British cancer charity CLIC Sargent found nearly half of parents of primary school children with cancer said their child’s diagnosis and treatment had caused the youngsters to grow apart from their friends.
After speaking to charities and healthcare professionals in Britain, Dolva’s organisation concluded that 70,000 British children spend large parts of the school year at home or in hospital due to illness.
Dolva’s goal with No Isolation was to make technology useful. She used to run consultancy incubating tech companies, but felt they were too focused on “making efficient people faster, which is so sad”.
“We would never have started No Isolation unless we could help someone. That was the one thing we were absolutely sure about when we started,” she said.
More than one in ten people in Britain feel isolated, and research links loneliness to dementia, early mortality and high blood pressure.

ENTER THE ROBOT
Months of chemotherapy left Elliot Smith, from Yeovil in southwest England, too weak to attend school. His weight nearly halved, and he could barely eat.
His father said the robot had made a big difference as his son was able to see and listen to his teacher, and interact when he felt strong enough, reducing his anxiety about falling behind at school.
“This device is absolutely pivotal in making those first next steps into integrating back into mainstream education,” Bill Smith said.
Another worry was that he was losing touch with his friends, while also feeling self-conscious about his appearance.
“His hair is only just starting to grow back. Whenever we would go anywhere with Elliot before, he wouldn’t take his hat off. He’s very conscious of his appearance, so this has helped in that he doesn’t physically have to be there,” Smith said.
The 12-year-old said he was unsure how much Bob was helping him to learn, not least because the amount he can hear varies depending on level of classroom noise and the robot’s proximity to a wifi router. So what did he think was the main benefit?
“Seeing my friends again.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation