The inventors of HitchBOT, the friendly, traveling robot that delighted fans in Canada and beyond, saw the project as a way to ask the question, "Can robots trust humans?"

Now they're teaming up again with a physician to ask a different question: "Can robots help humans to change?" It's a project that's part of a new collaboration between IBM and Hamilton Health Sciences — a two-year, first-of-its-kind clinical trial with medical patients about whether "social robotics" and AI can make a difference in self-regulation for behavioural change.

They're focusing on one of the cheapest and most effective healthcare regimes — skin cancer prevention through the use of sunscreen.

And so the HitchBOT creators wondered: Can artificial intelligence and robotics help medical professionals make a difference in patient communication and behaviour? 

To get to the bottom of that question, they are using humanoid and virtual app versions of a SoftBank robot called "Pepper," at a dermatology clinic. 

SOFTBANK-ROBOT/

Softbank's human-like robot 'Pepper' distributes a pack of tissue paper as a part-time worker during a news conference in Japan in 2015. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

"You will be thinking of the AI and Pepper as your coach," said David Harris Smith, an assistant professor of communication at McMaster University.

For patients at the clinic, that might look like sharing with the app what your schedule is, how much time you expect to spend outside, and when might make the most sense for you to apply sunscreen. Then in turn, the app would analyze that information and remind you before leaving the house to put on sunscreen.

The project is spearheaded by Harris Smith, Frauke Zeller, professor of communication at Ryerson University and Hermanio Lima, a dermatologist and medical professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"People often think, 'Oh, will a robot replace my doctor or my nurse?' And we don't see that that is the direction that we want to go," Harris Smith said. "We want to have the technology as supplemental to your physician … So it's actually a new position for AI in the clinical setting."

hitchbot victoria or bust

The hitch-hiking robot HitchBOT was part of a social experiment to see if drivers would pick up and drop off the robot in one piece to an art gallery in Victoria, British Columbia. (Paul Darrow/Reuters)

In that setting, patients are not always honest, or don't feel comfortable to disclose to their physician how well they're doing with complying with whatever prescription or advice that they've received, Harris Smith said.

But perhaps that would be different with AI or a robot — in this case, a "very cute, personable robot," he said.

"The embodiment is critical for engagement remotely," Harris Smith said. "Technically we could subtract the physical robot, but then you're missing something. It's different if you've actually sat down and met and had a conversation with Pepper. And Pepper pops up (on your phone), a 3D animation of Pepper, and has the same voice, and it's going, 'So! How are we doing today?'"

If there's positive results in the clinical trial, Harris Smith imagines there could be applications for things like PTSD, anxiety disorders and pain management.

'IBM Innovation Space' opens in downtown Hamilton

The project is just one of the ideas to come out of a new era of collaboration between researchers at McMaster and Hamilton Health Sciences, along with partners at IBM.

The dermatology project will use IBM's Watson cognitive solution technology and other cloud software to help it achieve its goal.

A new office called the "IBM Innovation Space" officially launched Monday at 1 King St. West, with a hope to see more change come as a result of such lightbulb moments.

Dino Trevisani

Dino Trevisani said it's been a long-held dream of his to bring IBM technology and presence to Hamilton, where he grew up. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The space is a piece of the dream of Hamilton native Dino Trevisani, president of IBM Canada. Trevisani pushed for a space in the city to apply IBM's technological knowhow and artificial intelligence to big healthcare problems.

In the 15 months it took to officially open the new office, teams of researchers and technologists have already gone beyond talking about ideas and begun to implement them.

The projects include the ideas about ways to include robots and artificial intelligence in patient communication, and also stretch to applying IBM's Watson AI technology to oncology and spreading computer systems to warn doctors of patients declining and testing.

IBM Innovation Space

The IBM Innovation Space officially opened Monday at 1 King Street West in downtown Hamilton. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Software to alert doctors to crisis earlier

Critical care doctor Alison Fox-Robichaud is an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University. The IBM partnership is building on her work towards eliminating "Code Blue" calls in the hospital, the alerts that notify staff that a patient has lost vital signs or is about to die, and raised it to another level.

Fox-Robichaud had already developed a warning score based on a patient's vital signs: the more abnormal the vital signs, the higher the score. The idea was that a high score would prompt a call to the rapid-response team.

code-blue

Alison Fox-Robichaud, a critical care physician at Hamilton General Hospital, demonstrates bedside monitoring on a dummy. (Andy Hincenberg/CBC)

But the new product is a computer program that scans vital signs and calculates the warning score automatically. Now, when the new screening process detects a score of six or more, it triggers a pager warning to the members of the rapid-response team.

"We didn't even open our office yet and we've got an award-winning technology that we can work with, together, an early warning system," Trevisani said.

Fox-Robichaud said her team is working on a commercialization plan for the software — for the first time in her career, she's working through what it looks like to package and share with others an idea she had to make things better in a Hamilton hospital.

"I'm a scientist; I don't always think about that as much," said Fox-Robichaud. "What it does do is, [IBM] has got the resources and the people they've brought in to be able to help us frame that."

And now they're starting to think about whether the idea could be helped by Watson or Pepper, and how they might take the system to the emergency department or even out with paramedics.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

With files from Blair Bigham