‘I didn’t know if I would be alive tomorrow’: Ukrainian student uses AI, robots to help those with mental health struggles

Hiding in a bomb shelter in Ukraine, Iryna Parkhomchuk had no idea what her future would hold.

“Honestly, it’s (a) horrible experience … You don’t know if you will be alive,” she told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Parkhomchuk would pass the time playing games on her phone in order to distract herself from reality, she says.

Now a student in Canada, Parkhomchuk is using that past experience, as well as her expertise in robotics and artificial intelligence, to help others struggling with their own mental health challenges.

Parkhomchuk is one of more than 60 Ukrainian interns in Canada taking part in the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program this summer.

Set to be her first journey to another country, the Ukrainian software engineering student applied for the Canadian internship months before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war in Ukraine.

Through her internship, Parkhomchuk eventually landed at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont.

She says she spoke to one of her professors about what she planned to do during her internship and he suggested something around Ukraine.

Parkhomchuk says there are many projects in progress at the lab that help people with different physical problems, so she began to consider how she could help those with mental health struggles.

“And I started thinking about this and I recalled my memories about my experience, that I was hiding, I didn’t know if I would be alive tomorrow and trying to distract myself with my phone,” she said.

Parkhomchuk then developed an app tailored for the Zenbo social robot to act as a therapeutic companion, offering its users visuals of greenspaces and seascapes, slow melodies, meditations and breathing exercises.

She says the robot looks like a big toy, making it something that children can enjoy, as well.

Her hope is to continue with the research and make an application for laptops and mobile devices.

“I am grateful to Mitacs for its support of my research internship and for the opportunity to do something to apply technology in such a way to help my fellow Ukrainians find distraction from the horrors of war, or even gain a morale boost,” Parkhomchuk said in a news release from Ontario Tech University.

“Ultimately, I hope the academic connections I’ve made at Ontario Tech will help bring me back to this university to earn my master’s degree and further develop the app.”

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