The New Face of Autism Therapy
2012 12 03

By Gregory Mone | PopSci.com

With one in 110 children diagnosed with autism, and therapists in short supply, researchers are developing humanoids to fill the gaps. But can robots help patients forge stronger bonds with people?

In a small, sparsely furnished room, a young boy in a black T-shirt backs himself into a corner. He’s cautious. Cameras capture his movements, and microphones record every sound. But this doesn’t intimidate him; he doesn’t even seem aware that he’s being observed. His mom, sitting nearby, is not the object of his focus either. Brian (his name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is autistic, and he’s staring across the room at a two-wheeled, gray, humanoid robot with big, cartoonish eyes. The machine, Bandit, is roughly Brian’s size, and it has been trying to engage him by slowly rolling toward him.



Bandit, a robot designed to engage children with autism, has stereo cameras for eyes.

Bandit uses infrared sensing and cameras to calculate Brian’s position. Seeing that the boy is backing away, the robot tries a different approach. It stops moving and makes a “come-here” gesture, waving him closer. It works. Brian approaches and then stands alongside Bandit, shoulder-to-plastic-shoulder. Bandit stops moving, and Brian backs off. The boy is like a boxer sizing up an opponent. Finally, emboldened, Brian steps up to the robot and leans his face toward it, curious and confident. For the researchers observing the interaction through a two-way mirror in an adjoining room, this small gesture is an encouraging sign. The boy is warming up to the machine, and that’s the point.

This unusual pair is part of a research initiative at the University of Southern California to build robots sympathetic and sensitive enough to serve as both therapists and playmates to kids with autism. Bandit is programmed to perform simple facial expressions and movements, and researchers are working to give the robot the ability to make complex decisions in response to the child’s behavior. This way, Bandit and robots like it could draw socially detached kids into simple games, like Simon Says or hide-and-seek and, ultimately, social activities with people. As USC computer scientist and project leader Maja Matari´c explains, “The robot is a catalyst for social interaction.”

In its current form, Bandit has only rudimentary social skills. For instance, it cannot yet understand speech; a researcher in the other room must command the robot to respond if the child speaks to it. But early results are encouraging. Matari´c’s team has conducted experiments similar to the interaction between Bandit and Brian with 14 other autistic children, most between five and nine years old. Some of the kids were incapable of speech, while others could talk in full sentences but were prone to physical tics like hand-flapping or obsessions with moving objects like trains. The interactions lasted on average about five minutes—not long enough to produce permanent behavioral changes—but many of the children became more sociable, and more vocal, with a robot in the room.

That may seem surprising, since robots are hardly known for warmth and sociability. Yet there is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. “They find unlawful situations toxic,” he says. “They can’t cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects.”

[...]


Read the full article at: popsci.com







Related Articles
Child Prodigies: A Unique Form of Autism?
An Immune Disorder at the Root of Autism
Eye Contact May Disturb Autistic Kids’ Thinking
Grandin on The Autism Surge
Can Autism Really Be Diagnosed in Minutes?
’Parent Training’ May Help Kids With Autism Behave Better
How baby-driven robots could help disabled children


Latest News from our Front Page

Equinox: Homicide In Kennewick
2014 09 19
Description text from Youtube: One of the most important and controversial archaeological finds ever made, Kennewick Man’s remains were dated to around 7000 BC. Found on the banks of the Colorado River, his facial structure, however, was unanimously reported not to be a Native American by all the scholars who have taken a close look at the remains... The implication ...
The Israeli exception to US foreign policy advocating gay rights
2014 09 19
From an op-ed by James Bamford in the NYTimes on his conversations with Edward Snowden (Israel’s NSA Scandal): Among his most shocking discoveries, he told me, was the fact that the N.S.A. was routinely passing along the private communications of Americans to a large and very secretive Israeli military organization known as Unit 8200. This transfer of intercepts, he said, included ...
Russia to ban Bitcoin by next spring
2014 09 19
RT, an English-language news outlet in Russia, reports that a top official with the Russian government has announced that a law will be passed banning Bitcoin’s exchange into real money by next spring because of Bitcoin’s use by criminals and terrorists. Deputy Finance Minister Aleksey Moiseev said to journalists in Moscow: “People can play with their chips, and they can call them ...
Ingraham to Zuckerberg: Time for Open Borders at Your Mansion
2014 09 19
Talk radio host Laura Ingraham re-iterated her challenge to debate Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and criticized him for securing his property while demanding the US allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country on Monday. “In the end, borders work for these guys. Right, I would not want to be on [Facebook board member] Marc Andreesen’s household staff if ...
MasterCard tests Orwellian national ID card on Nigeria
2014 09 19
The march toward enslaving the world’s population by a handful of globalist statists and corporations continues, with the latest chapter unfolding, of all places, in Nigeria, compliments of MasterCard. According to the website GovtSlaves.info, the credit card giant is rolling out a card in Africa’s most populous country that has the ability to retain all personal, health insurance, tax payment and ...
More News »