How Are High-Tech Tools Shaping the Future of Healthcare?

Technicians working in the pharmaceutical production line

(DGIwire) — When you hear of a combination of robots and teddy bears, it might call to mind visions of the 1998 cult classic Small Soldiers, in which mechanized toys come to life and terrorize a family. But Dr. Peter Weinstock, who directs the Simulator Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Cynthia Breazeal, who directs M.I.T. Media Lab’s personal robots group, think a robot teddy bear could represent a major breakthrough, according to a recent report in The New York Times. The pair has worked together to bring Huggable, a prototype social robot developed at the Media Lab, into Weinstock’s hospital, which will finance a 90-participant study. The study is designed to determine if such a robot could provide positive therapeutic value for children facing lengthy hospital convalescences.

Huggable, which is more or less a high-tech puppet, is able to communicate and interact with children via remote operation, says the Times. Three groups comprise the study: 30 children interact with Huggable, 30 play with an image of it presented on a tablet, and the remaining 30 are given a normal plush teddy bear. Every child is video-recorded and given a Q Sensor bracelet that measures their changing physiological state.

With the help of a team of researchers from Northeastern University, Weinstock is beginning to catalog and analyze the data collected from his clinical trial. He thinks the study could help his colleagues have a more complete picture of children’s emotional landscape, which he has called their fourth vital sign. He told the Times that researchers think a lot about heart rate, blood pressure and how much oxygen is in the blood, but don’t have a great monitor for how the child is feeling. What we do know, he added, is that when children are happier they feel better, and it can have a big effect on healing.

Huggable represents a not insignificant slice of Boston Children’s $500,000 investment in social robotics research, according to the hospital’s numbers. In fact, Technology Review reports, Dr. Breazeal envisions a future in which Huggable can operate without the assistance of a remote puppeteer. She believes the robot could represent a calming diversion while capturing data and information from patients that could be passed to doctors and nurses, maintaining and improving the continuity of patient care.

“The development of new high-tech tools holds the potential to benefit a vast range of patients young and old,” says Jeffrey A. Duchemin, president and CEO of Harvard Bioscience. “But the innovation really begins in the research lab, where those tools are used to push back the frontiers of the science of medicine.”

Based in Holliston, MA, Harvard Bioscience offers the highest-quality tools and equipment for university, government and other research laboratories. Its product range is extensive, from molecular analysis instruments to electrophysiology tools.

Whether it’s a robot bear or more traditional piece of life science equipment, research technology is moving at almost-unthinkable speeds. And some of it is even “huggable.”