Probo - the robot for Sick Children

Meet Probo the robot designed to keep sick children occupied in hospital.
04 May 2008

Interview with 

Chelsea Wald, Ivan Hermans




Chelsea - I have someone I'd like to introduce you to. Dr Chris, this is Probo. Probo, this is Dr Chris.

Probo and his family treeChris - If I'm honest Chelsea, that doesn't make an enormous amount of sense to me, what he's saying.

Chelsea - That's because Probo's not speaking any real language. This is, in fact, Probo. You see he's an intelligent robot being developed at the Flemish University in Brussels. When he comes together he's going to interact with sick children in the hospital. The language they're developing for him is something like the Teletubby's. It doesn't really mean anything specifically but it has emotional meaning.

Chris - Can this robot respond to the children and react to the way they behave with him?

Chelsea - Yes. The idea is that Probo will help children by reading their emotions through their facial expression and their tone of voice. The Probo will respond in some sort of comforting way. That could either be by mirroring the kid's emotions like anger or fear or by expressing a different emotion like contentment. Psychologists will work on that part.

Chris - What does he actually look like, Probo?

Chelsea - That's an interesting question. Probo's designers put him in the order of proboscidea which also includes elephants, mastodons and mammoths. Basically he's green. He stands on two legs and has a trunk. He'll also have an interactive video display in his belly that could allow the child to talk to his family and friends. This is what the person who came up with the idea of Probo, Ivan Hermans, has to say about the video screen.

Ivan - I think that it will be a tool of communication in the future because when kids are going to the hospital they cannot go to the class any more. They miss their environment. That will be a tool of communication. I think that's very important that they can speak with their grandparents, with the school. When you have to go to the hospital they cut all the social contacts.

Chelsea - The video screens will also provide a new way for the doctors to interact with the child. For example, asking how much pain the child's in. the kids might also get information about procedures they're about to go through. In effect the idea is that Probo will eventually be like a psychological counsellor as well as an entertainer and a companion. Here's Ivan Hermans again.

Ivan - I think because the robot will be there 24 hours and a child's not feeling well you want to be alone, I think. Not with the parents, not with the doctors. With the robot he can be like a companion. I think that's important.

Chris - At what stage of development is he at now, Chelsea?

A Purple HippoChelsea - Well, Probo's still at a very early stage. They hope to have the first prototype in hospitals by the end of this year. He will still have some sort of operator like a puppeteer. He won't have his own artificial intelligence in place yet. They just recently got the first full-size body which is basically just a stuffed animal body. They're going to rip into it and put the moving parts inside. They're doing all the robotics on the principle of compliant actuation which means basically that the parts aren't rigid. Everything is designed to be soft and safe for kids. If the kids grab at his trunk, for example, it would bend very easily but it would go back to its original position when they let go.

Chris - Which is, of course, very important. Is this just for the hospital market because I can think of lots of parents who would probably quite like some sort of companion for their children when they're unwell?

Chelsea - That's certainly a possibility though at first someone would have to be pretty rich to buy one of these, I think. They're also thinking that Probo would be helpful for caring for the elderly though they think they'll have to design a new appearance for him. Kids really love the way he looks and they helped design Probo but older people seem to find him a bit too strange.

Chris - So you think the Florence Nightingale look for the elderly consumer then?

Chelsea - Possibly, I don't know. Maybe a purple hippopotamus, who knows?

Many thanks to Selma Yilmazyildiz and Kristof Goris of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels.  For more information on Probo you can visit the
ANTY Project Website.

Ivan Hermans is president of
the Anty Foundation.


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