June 12, 2003 Cartoon figures animated by robotic artificial intelligence can help mothers cope with the stresses associated with caring for a child who has cancer.
In the first clinical trial, 26 mothers of children being treated for malignancies gave "uniformly positive reviews" of the system, called "Carmen's Bright IDEAS," (CBI) developed by the University of Southern California, according to a paper that will be presented at International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, Sydney, Australia, July 21-24
"We believe this is remarkable," said Lewis Johnson, director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education (CARTE), which created the CBI system, working with health professionals at the USC-affiliated Los Angeles Childrens Hospital and elsewhere.
CBI "is an interactive animated health intervention designed to improve the social problem-solving skills of mothers of pediatric cancer patients" who must balance the needs of their sick child, their well children, their spouses, and their work, according to the paper.
It builds on years of experience by Johnson and colleague Stacy Marsella (who is lead author of the conference presentation) creating software teaching 'bots."
IDEAS is an acronym for to a well-established multi-step problem-solving method for stressed people ('Identify a solvable problem, Develop possible solutions..."). The IDEAS toolkit is usually taught by social workers and counselors using worksheets and other conventional teaching materials.
In CBI, IDEAS are taught by dramas illustrating how the technique works, dramas played out by robotic characters animated by artifical intelligence.
"Carmen" is the name of an animated figure who serves as a surrogate for the mother. She has two children, a sick son and a well daughter, represented by robot thespians. The 'bots present problems in scripted interactions which Carmen then discusses with another 'bot character, a counselor named Gina.
The live mother taking the course is able to control the actions of Carmen by choosing thoughts -- presented in "thought bubbles" -- of the thought or emotion motivating the animated mother figure.
The user-mother's choices are worked out dramatically on screen, and Gina recommends appropriate IDEA applications to respond to the action.
The idea, according to the presentation paper: "If Gina gets Carmen to apply the IDEAS technique with a positive attitude, she potentially wins over the learner, but regardless, the learner gets a vivid demonstration of how to apply the IDEAS technique."
Complex and sophisticated software is used to orchestrate drama from the mother's choices.
It is not a simple matter of creating canned incidents illustrating various outcomes. Instead, explained Johnson, the AI characters actually create their actions and dialog "on the fly," acting much as humans do, from goals and desires evoked by what occurs.
While the words spoken were pre-recorded by human actors, rather than synthesized, the agents "speaking" make their own decisions what to say, adapting to "twists and turns in the dialog caused by the learner's interactions."
The system is still under development, so only a single segment was tested, one in which Carmen is attempting to cope with tantrums by the healthy sister of the cancer patient.
But the segment tested well. Mothers involved completed questionnaires after running the Carmen's Bright IDEAS system. According to the researchers, they "assessed the story as believable, interesting and convincing. We believe this is a remarkable achievement; it should not be forgotten that the learner is interacting with 2-D cartoon-like animated characters about deeply distressing problems and the possibility of a negative reaction was a deep concern."
Although the sample was small, the researchers concluded, "overall the results were uniformly positive."
In late March, the National Institutes for Health positively evaluated a proposal to create a version of CBI for handhelds, so that mothers may at some point be able to carry around a version of the help CBI offers.
"The new generation of these devices have enough computing power and able enough displays to potentially put a counselor in a parent's purse or pocket," said Johnson. "We are excited at the prospect of working to develop it."
Carmen's Bright IDEAS was funded by the National Cancer Institute. Catherine LeBore worked with Johnson and Marsella in developing the program. The project was conducted in collaboration with Dr. Ernest Katz of Childrens Hospital, Los Angeles, Dr. O.J. Sahler of University of Rochester Medical Center, and researchers at other cancer centers around the country.
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