Humanoid Robot Helps Train Children with Autism | News | Scientific Computing

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NAO Robots

You may find it surprising that something as complicated as a robot could be an asset for helping children to develop Social Interaction Skills. And yet, as reported in this Scientific Computing article “Humanoid Robot Helps Train Children with Autism | News | Scientific Computing,” that is exactly what is being developed by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University. Their goal – to test whether intelligent adaptive systems can make an impact on ASD.

 Simple Shapes

As I’ve worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), one of the principle lessons I’ve learned is to seek ever more simple solutions. In practice, this paradigm shift has turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated, especially when there is such a stark contract between chronological age and developmental stages. Ultimately, my inspiration for simplicity came from the 2008 movie “Wall-E,” which broke down human interactions into physical movements and either eliminated, or dramatically simplified language. As this concept sunk in, perfectly obvious images, like the TeleTubbies came flooding to mind, and I realize I’ve seen this before.

People Complicate Learning

If you really think about it, we’ve long recognized that people complicate learning – all the way back to ancient Greece, in fact. Over the years we’ve come up with sock puppets, hand puppets, string puppets,  and people dressed like puppets. A robot, then, is simply one more technological extension of a trend that started eons ago. NAO even has a simply shaped face and body, much like its puppet counterparts. So, the NAO robots being used in this project seem a perfect fit. After all, if you’re trying to focus on learning something as complex as human social interactions, the fewer complications and distractions the better. In a room, that can mean turning off televisions and radios, and removing clutter. In the case of removing humans, we’ve long used puppets. Think of a robot, then, as simple puppet with no visible strings.


Rules and Predictability

That said, robots do offer one significant advantage over the traditional puppet – simple sets of rules. When a human puppeteer handles a puppet, they may be inclined to move or act quickly, or to introduce concepts or language. A robot, on the other hand, is limited to a particular set of programming. That makes a robot very, very predictable, which eliminates a lot of fear and confusion on behalf of a person interacting with it. A robot won’t suddenly stand up and leave the room, even to use the bathroom. It won’t have bad days, or be inexplicably very happy. Its voice, if used, has a finite amount of modulation, and there are specific word choices available to it. Almost everything about a robot is predictability – a state well known to reduce anxiety in children. Less anxiety, more learning.

Robot Teachers

Robots as puppets, then, are great tools for helping to reduce anxiety in children and helping them to learn. Of course, a robot’s ability to interact and learn a person’s skill, and advance through stages of mastery are minimal at best. Thus, human monitoring and guidance are a must. So, while I don’t expect that you’ll see robots replacing your a 5th grade classroom teacher, they are certainly a great example of how we can continue an age old tradition of using puppets in a contemporary manner to advance education. The possibilities here are endless, but the implications for facilitating the process of learning social skills amongst children with Autism Spectrum Disorders is a concept with considerable potential, and merit.