Ontario Tech University is highlighting a calming new robotics project that was developed by a student from Ukraine.

Iryna Parkhomchuk is working on a “social robot,” meant to help people living with stress and anxiety.

Before arriving in Canada, she was protecting herself in a bomb shelter.

“The whole time I was in the shelter, I had my phone and I would try to play a game to distract myself from the reality going on around me,” she said. “It made me realize that perhaps artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could play a role in helping people cope with mental health issues.”

Parkhomchuk, a student at Kyiv’s National University of Life and Environmental Science of Ukraine, is one of 60 Ukrainian citizens taking part in a Canada-wide internship program this summer. She has been at Ontario Tech since May.

Parkhomchuk’s program involves an app that connects to an Asus Zenbo, a compact robot with eyes and a smile.

She researched five different coping strategies: meditation, breathing, singing, art therapy and music.

“The original goal was to build an artificial companion for anyone who is suffering from mental health issues, but by narrowing her focus to the current situation in Ukraine and using her personal experience as a guide, Iryna is making a very specific and unique contribution that I don’t think could be duplicated by anyone else,” said Professor Patrick Hung at the Faculty of Business and IT.

The robot can be programmed for a number of things, including showing relaxing greenspaces and playing soothing melodies. It can guide you through meditation and breathing exercises, and arts and crafts.

“When I polled Ukrainians, it was obvious that their stress and anxiety levels are heightened,” said Parkhomchuk. “War is affecting their health and it’s my hope that this innovation will help them both during and after the war.”

She is planning to return to Ontario Tech for her master’s degree, and develop the app for multiple platforms, including smartphones and tablets.

Another Ukrainian student, taking the same program with an internship in Toronto, said he believes PTSD is now common amongst his community.

“Constant awareness and fear of any loud sounds still haunt me,” said Roman Akhmetshyn, who hails from Irpin. “I strongly believe that the Zenbo robot has the potential to be a therapeutic tool. By delivering proven methods of stress and anxiety relief, it may help to ease some tension on the nervous system, and maybe even boost morale. Having Zenbo in shelters during shelling or bombardment may also help distract children from the horrors of war.”

To learn more about the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program, click here.

File photo courtesy of Ontario Tech

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