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Robots Show Promise For Social Skills Development

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New research suggests that robots could offer a remarkable tool to help children with disabilities master social skills.

Using a modified version of a so-called humanoid robot, researchers at Vanderbilt University say they’ve found that children with autism respond positively to the two-foot-tall device, which could one day supplement time spent with a human therapist.

For the study, autism researchers and mechanical engineers augmented an existing robot with webcams to track a child’s movement and create an “intelligent environment” allowing the device to respond to the scenario. Programmed with prompts like “look over here,” the robot is able to make head and hand gestures and, much like a therapist, it instructs a user to do certain tasks and praises a job well done.

When researchers compared the responses of a dozen children ages 2 to 5 — half of whom had autism and half who were typically developing — they found that kids with the developmental disorder paid more attention to the robot and followed its instructions nearly as well as those from a real therapist.

The results of what researchers say is the first real-world test of the effectiveness of what’s known as intelligent adaptive systems in those with autism were published this month in IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

“A therapist does many things that robots can’t do,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt who worked on the study. “But a robot-centered system could provide much of the repeated practice that is essential to learning. The cost of robotic systems like this will continue to come down in the future so it should easily pay for itself by supplementing human intervention.”

Now Sarkar and his colleagues say they are working to expand the robot’s capabilities to address additional skills development including imitation learning, role playing and sharing.

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. A. Father says:

    How much will it cost and when will it be ready?

  2. m says:

    I do think it’s interesting that it’s said that “therapists do many things that robots can’t”, but they never manage to detail precisely what those things are, even in context here.

  3. Gerard Costa, Ph.D. says:

    Our goal is not to help children do human things but to be fully human. This research fails to recognize the enormous research on interpersonal neurobiology and human relationships as foundational in human development. The brain is a relational organ, as is the human heart. The fact that chilrden are affected by machines, does not mean that machines are better. Our work must be about understanding what the person given this diagnosis of autism is like from the inside out, and create a world where all belong; a world that recognizes and respects neurodiversity and helps all humans be in relationship with each other. Parents need our thoughtful, principled help and many parents who feel perplexed by theior own child will be made to feel less worthy if they believe a machine can do what they feel they cannot. Relationship-based approaches help parents find the “spark” that their child will respond to.

    Gerard Costa, Ph.D.
    Director and Senior Lecturer, Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, College of Education and Human Services, Montclair State University

  4. KA101 says:

    Uh, Dr. Costa…can I ask you to rephrase your opening sentence there?

    “Our goal is not to help children do human things but to be fully human.” kinda sounds as though children benefiting from therapists (or robot assistants) are somehow less-than-human, or at least not until you/your colleagues have approved of them.

    I’m hoping that you didn’t mean to convey that idea, as PwD face all sorts of discrimination thanks to being perceived as less-than-human already. (For instance, doctors denying us transplants on the basis of disability.)

    Thanks for your consideration. (My word-verification for this post includes “caste”. Strangely appropriate.)

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