Ukrainian intern at Oshawa’s Ontario Tech creating ‘social’ robots to help people with PTSD

Published July 22, 2022 at 10:42 am

When Ukrainian university student Iryna Parkhomchuk applied for a research internship in Canada last fall – in what would be her first time abroad – she was looking forward to an adventure. What she didn’t expect was that shortly before arriving here she’d be cowering in a bomb shelter, fearing for her life each day.

Now, Parkhomchuk is using that life-changing experience to make a difference in the lives of others by applying her leading-edge research to create a first-of-its-kind social robot tailored to help people cope with stress and anxiety.

“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,” said Parkhomchuk, one of more than 60 Ukrainian students taking part in the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program across Canada this summer. “It made me realize that perhaps artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could play a role in helping people cope with mental health issues,” she said.

Parkhomchuk, an undergraduate Software Engineering student at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, has been working at Digital Life Institute, Ontario Tech University under the guidance of Patrick Hung, Professor at the Faculty of Business and IT, since May. Digital Life Institute is an official research entity at the university that examines the human and social dimensions of current and projected digital technologies.

To validate her idea for a social robot, Parkhomchuk first polled a sample group of Ukrainians – both those remaining in Ukraine and those who fled the country during the war – to gauge their readiness to engage with robotics and AI. What she discovered is that most of those surveyed (67 per cent) think robots are either ‘very good’ or ‘good’ and roughly 76 per cent would be willing to communicate with one.

Next, she researched five different coping strategies proven to help alleviate stress and anxiety — meditation, breathing, singing, art therapy, and music — and applied her findings to program a social robot called Zenbo to function as a mental health aid.

“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 Hung.

Highlights of the program developed by Parkhomchuk include relaxing visuals of greenspace, natural fractals, and seascapes; slow, simple melodies that hold a steady beat without too many surprises; meditations; and step-by-step breathing exercises. It also provides tailored sing-alongs and instructions for creating mandala art as well as peaceful collages, both of which are shown to make people feel safe and at ease.

Roman Akhmetshyn, a Mitacs Globalink summer intern in Toronto who endured daily artillery shelling in his hometown of Irpin before coming to Canada, said he believes many people in his community – including himself – now suffer from some form of PTSD. “Constant awareness and fear of any loud sounds still haunt me,” he said. “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.”

The opportunity to do something meaningful for her fellow Ukrainians has been extremely fulfilling for Parkhomchuk, who said she is very appreciative of Mitacs’ support and the way in which her internship helped to forge many strong academic connections. In the future, she plans to return to Ontario Tech to earn her Master’s degree and further develop the program, which can be modified to run on any mobile platform, including smartphones and tablets, to make it easier for anyone suffering from a mental health issue to access the aids.

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

Ontario Tech has participated in the Mitacs Globalink program for the past five years and Hung gives it a five-star rating when it comes to attracting top researchers. “Not only are internships an excellent way to recruit international Master’s students to our team, but they also give us the opportunity to learn about other cultures,” he said, noting that working with Parkhomchuk has given him a greater appreciation for the Ukrainian way of life.

In total, 2,199 students from 35 countries are taking part in the Mitacs Globalink program this summer to help solve complex problems across a range of industry sectors, from health and wellness, to robotics, technology and the environment. Designed to foster international research links and boost Canada’s economy, the 12-week internships are available at more than 70 universities.

Since 2009, Mitacs has matched more than 8,000 senior undergraduates with Canadian faculty through its Globalink research internships. To further strengthen international research collaborations, Mitacs Globalink now offers two-way mobility opportunities between Canada and 20 international partner countries for both undergraduate and graduate students. The program promotes Canada as a top destination for research opportunities and showcases Canadian research expertise around the world.

“Mitacs is very proud to be supporting more than 60 Ukrainian students through its Globalink Research Internship this year — part of our broader efforts to help those affected by the war. Research like Iryna’s will ultimately help people in Canada, in Ukraine, and beyond,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn. “The Mitacs Globalink Research Internship helps participants gain research experience here in Canada, advancing innovation and creating attractive opportunities for international students who often decide to further their education here.”

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