Painting Robot Uses AI to Help Cook Children's Patients Connect to Creativity
The robot's capabilities are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms designed to meet the child artist at their level of ability, creativity and attention span.
By Ashley Antle
In recent years, robots have emerged as invaluable tools in health care by performing everything from the routine task of delivering a patient meal to assisting in highly complex surgical procedures. Their efficiency and precision can help medical professionals save time and save lives.
But a new type of robot ─ one capable of painting with artistry and expression ─ is helping patients at Cook Children’s Medical Center tap into their creativity as they navigate difficult diagnoses and circumstances. The painting robot known as Spikelangelo, or “Spike,” was first rolled out to patients on the epilepsy monitoring unit at Cook Children’s Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health.
Oftentimes, patients in the epilepsy monitoring unit spend up to a week in the hospital being monitored continuously for seizure activity. The time can be isolating and slow to pass.
“Creating art with the painting robot gives our patients something to take their minds off of why they are in the hospital,” said M. Scott Perry, M.D., an avid art lover, epileptologist and head of the Justin Institute. “It gives them an activity and a way to engage with something outside of their rooms.”
Therapeutic art activities are a regular part of treatment for Cook Children’s patients, especially for those struggling to express themselves as they undergo tough medical interventions.
“There’s so much research to support the multitude of benefits art offers for everyone in the health care setting, which can be unpredictable, challenging, stressful and frightening for children,” said Jill Koss, director of Family Support Services at Cook Children’s. “We use art as a way for people to explore what they’re going through, to express their feelings, and even to explore who they are because that could be changing and evolving through this process.”
Connect, Create and Collaborate
To produce a masterpiece with the help of Spike, budding artists begin by using their fingers or a stylus, just like they would a paintbrush, to create a work of art on a computer tablet in the comfort of their hospital rooms. Working remotely from its art studio near the medical center’s Child Life Zone, Spike maneuvers its brushes to mirror the artist’s strokes and paints the masterpiece onto a canvas. The studio’s clear enclosure allows hospital staff and guests to watch the robotic artist at work.
Spike’s capabilities are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms designed to meet the child artist at their level of ability, creativity and attention span. The robot can paint exactly what the creator imagines, or go a step further and provide assistance with color choice and even complete an unfinished creation based on the style and expression of the artist.
For hospitalized children in isolation, Spike can be as much a connector as it is a painter. Shared pieces designed and offered by the creative arts program will give patients the opportunity to virtually collaborate as they work individually and consecutively on the same project.
“I can see, for instance, several kids on the floor working together on a project by each adding their interpretation on how they would paint it,” Dr. Perry said. “And then Spike blending it all together into one painting.”
Patients will be able to take their masterpieces home as a reminder of their creativity, ability and resilience in the midst of challenging circumstances or use them to decorate their hospital rooms. Some may even be displayed throughout the medical center.
Fatherhood Inspires Innovation
Spike was created by artist and roboticist Pindar Van Arman after the responsibilities of fatherhood limited the time he could spend painting each day.
“When I had my children I started having more fun hanging out with my kids, changing diapers and doing stuff that parents do, and all of a sudden I was out of time,” Van Arman said. “I went from painting every day for several hours to realizing it had been a week since I painted.”
In the beginning, Van Arman programmed the robot to perform the simple yet time-consuming and tedious tasks required to prepare a canvas, mix paints, layout the proportions and paint a background. His digital art assistant worked so well that he continued to expand the machine’s capabilities, programming AI algorithms and providing feedback loops for each new idea or task.
“Every couple of months I would wonder what else I could teach it,” Van Arman said. “Like now that I have it painting could I get it to help me actually choose the pallets? Then I added a little artificial intelligence to help me with composition.”
Over the past 16 years, Van Arman has written more than two dozen algorithms to build the brain of the robot and develop it into a full-fledged digitized AI artist that can paint in the same expression and style as its creator as well as make creative decisions of its own.
“With every stroke and painting I make I’m providing feedback and training the robot, and it uses each painting as input for the future,” Van Arman said. “It’s a collaboration with myself — me being the artist and the robot imitating as much of my artistic ability as I could program into a machine. Basically, it’s a digital version of myself.”
The Future of Spikelangelo
Spikelangelo’s residency at Cook Children’s Medical Center is a collaboration between Dr. Perry and Van Arman. The two became friends after Dr. Perry purchased one of Van Arman’s paintings on eBay.
Bringing Spike to the medical campus has been several years in the making as they worked together to program, test and install a machine that meets the specific needs and attention span limitations of child artists. Van Arman made a number of customizations geared towards children, like increasing the number of colors the robot can use, developing paint formulations that don’t dry out too quickly, the addition of a paint-by-numbers feature and the ability to change the width of the paint stroke.
The robot was generously donated to Cook Children’s by Van Arman’s Creative Technology Foundation and is supported by a number of the health system’s donors. Employees at Van Arman's company, Artobotics, also volunteered their time to the project.
Spike’s pilot residency will help shape the robot’s future and Van Arman’s vision for its potential capabilities.
“Through its use at Cook Children’s, I want to find out what is fun for these kids,” Van Arman said. “I want to learn what they enjoy and tailor the robot to them. If it’s popular, I would love to expand it into other venues for children.”
Dr. Perry’s vision is to grow its therapeutic use throughout the medical center and is particularly excited about the possibility of adding voice command for children with cognitive impairments and neuromuscular disabilities. He hopes Spike will one day connect children in hospitals all over the country.
In the meantime, Spike will create, entertain and brighten the days of young artists who visit him in Fort Worth.
Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children's
Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children'sJane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children’s Medical Center – Fort Worth.
Kids with neurological disorders often face many challenges - and see many specialists. For many families that means multiple visits to different locations. At Cook Children’s, we’re changing the way we deliver care by making their journey easier. How? By opening the doors to care that’s centered around the unique needs of our patients and their families.
Introducing the Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children’s – bringing together nine specialties under one roof. Pediatric specialists in neurological, developmental and behavioral health are changing the way we deliver health care. Together, we’re healing minds and bodies, and sharing smiles that warm the soul and connecting care for kids unlike anyone else.