How Ontario post-secondary schools are putting robots to work in classrooms and clinics

Universities and colleges are investing in robots, but not everyone thinks humanoid helpers are as practical as they are cute


Over the past few years, humanoid robots have been popping up on higher education campuses in Southern Ontario to aid students in the fields of engineering, health care, and dermatology.

In June, McMaster University and Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) joined forces to bring Pepper, a humanoid robot created by Japanese telecom giant SoftBank, to interact with patients at a Hamilton dermatology clinic as part of the Smart Robots for Health Communication project.

Pepper, which is used in other countries as a customer service representative, a waiter and salesman, among other roles, can perceive human emotion and respond accordingly.

Researchers at McMaster and Ryerson are programming Pepper on how to interact and share information with clients that have skin problems related to sun damage. By the year’s end, the 1.2-metre-tall robot will be well-versed on the importance of sunblock.

The joint initiative was the brainchild of Dr. Hermenio Lima, who is the associate professor of medicine at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine and the director of McMaster’s new Dermatology Centre for Innovation.

The project’s origins date back to summer 2015, when Lima was with his friends David Harris Smith, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster, and Frauke Zeller, professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University – the creators of the hitchhiking robot hitchBOT.

When hitchBOT met an untimely demise on the road at the hands of vandals, Lima suggested to Harris Smith and Zeller that they do a project in a more controlled environment, such as a clinic.

“In a busy clinic you have too much information that the patient cannot process,” says Lima. “We had a light-bulb moment to create something that is going to help us transfer information.”

In other words, particularly stubborn patients might be more inclined to heed health advice and make applying sunscreen a habit if a cute robot is encouraging them to do so.

“The idea was that a robot will be the best tool to help us [in the clinic] because it has the time to stay with and talk to the patient and hopefully influence them,” he says.

Other post-secondary schools are investing in humanoid robots – with and without artificial intelligence – to teach students about manufacturing and how to program a small humanoid robot to move its body.

The hope is that by giving students access to these advanced technologies, they will have an edge when looking for employment.

Others say robots are only a small help and that less adorable-looking forms of artificial intelligence can be better used.

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Cheol Joon Baek

Pepper the robot and Dr. Hermenio Lima at McMaster University in Hamilton

Since 2015, the robot YuMi has worked alongside students in mechanical and electrical engineering classrooms at Sheridan College. YuMi is a dual-arm small parts assembly robot that has flexible hands, camera-based part location and a design that allows for close human interaction.

Sheridan is one of the only educational institutes in Ontario with this technology, according to Shaun Ghafari, professor in the Oakville-based college’s School of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Technology (Canadore College in North Bay also has one).

YuMi is mostly used in a practical setting, and the school now owns two. It is a collaborative robot, meaning it shares workspaces and physically collaborates with humans, whereas traditional robots work independently or with a small amount of direction. (Pepper is also a collaborative robot.)

“Generally collaborative robots are given a lot of attention in university because they have less limitation and constraints versus a traditional robot,” explains Ghafari. “They are small and they can work at the same time as the human. The robot is going to provide preciseness and increase productivity significantly.

“We think the students coming out [of the program] will have an advantage,” he adds.

At the University of Waterloo, students taking an introductory course on algorithm methods in robotics are taught how to model, program and control robots. As they learn theory, they work in a lab with the Nao, another humanoid robot made by SoftBank.

“It’s very important for students to have both theoretical and practical experiences and Nao is a nice platform to get that practical experience,” says Waterloo associate professor Dana Kulic. “A humanoid’s form is similar to our form so it’s very easy to program and visualize these algorithms.”

However, not everyone is enamoured with humanoid robots as teaching tools.

“We’ve seen robots be very effective when part of a cuddly toy or to help people do various things,” says Krista Jones, managing director of work and learning at MaRS. “It will have dramatic applications in certain situations, but I don’t think it’s going to take over education.”

While robots are appropriate in specific situations, she believes the broader field of artificial intelligence – computer programs capable of learning – is where educators’ focus should lie.

MaRS works with companies and schools such as Pathship’s real-time learning platform Datum and D2L’s Brightspace learning management system, to bring AI into classrooms.

The University of Waterloo is using the AI platform Crowdmark, a MaRS-supported venture, to assign and grade tests.

“One of the things that AI is doing is disrupting career paths, jobs and a whole bunch of things we used to take for granted,” says Jones. “Education needs to morph itself around that.”

To that end, the federal and provincial government and the University of Toronto are investing in AI with the launch of the non-profit Vector Institute.

To be housed in the MaRs building, Vector will research, fund and promote AI activity with the goal of generating new applications.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lima believes that placing a robot in a patient environment could be the basis for a new field of medicine, with Peppers going to underdeveloped countries to assist in health care.

“In medical school training, we have to learn how to deal with nurses, secretaries, the team, because everyone has a position and a function,” he says. “Now we may have to include how to interact with robots in the curriculum.”

website@nowtoronto.com | @KellyKaliopi

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