A group of Ontario students are using artificial intelligence to train a robot to recognize human emotions and “empathize” with its companion.

The students at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., have been programming a Zenbo, a robot companion designed by the technology company Asus, to read and react to human emotions.

“We have made some progress, but from that to the point where the robot can build empathy for the human, there is a long way to go,” Miguel Vargas Martin, computer science professor at the Ontario Tech University, told CTV News Channel. “I think we are on the right track.”

Zenbo, released in 2016 with an initial purchase price of $599, is capable of controlling the devices of smart homes, including light fixtures. It can also tell jokes, read children’s stories and can alert the users of upcoming appointments.

“The robot becomes a truly confident companion for the human,” Martin said.

The students are using a program within the robot that allows developers to code additional features, including added dialogue, expressions and actions. Using this programming application, the students are hoping to “train” the robot to understand human emotions and react to them appropriately.

“We’re trying to combine the facial expression with the vocals of the human companion and the robot -- using AI -- should be able to pick up the potential emotions of the human,” Martin said.

“We are confident that with AI we should be able to tell with certain margin of error what the human is feeling in any particular time.”

If the project is successful, Zenbo could one day theoretically understand when someone is going through a mental health crisis and could then alert a caregiver, as an example.

Martin said the students’ program will also protect the user’s data by keeping it on the device, rather than sending it to the cloud like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant.

“We’re trying to make it private so that everything you say to the robot stays with the robot,” he said.