How Is This New Humanoid Robot Helping Kids on the Spectrum?

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A small humanoid robot, this one with a head shaped like a teddy bear’s, aims to help young children on the autism spectrum. TecO, from a team in Mexico, is an electricity-powered marvel of technological wizardry and computer software. It can sense neural signals sent from the child’s brain that may indicate certain emotions in the child. The robot can’t mind-read, but it does try to read facial expressions so it can get a child with autism to simply make eye contact with the machine.

TecO stands about 20 inches tall and attempts to mimic human facial expressions. The body is made of aluminum, and it has a head and arms that look like a teddy bear. Human clothes cover up the mechanism. The robot runs on electricity and costs approximately $1,120 as of March 2016.

The robot learns signal patterns coming from electrodes attached to a child’s head. Those signals transmit to the robot. The machine then tries to bring about a positive, therapeutic experience. In one example, a child may show sadness that TecO’s software interprets as a problem. The robot then attempts to interact with the child to bring about a positive response. The machine tries to establish eye contact with the child through a simple pattern of sounds or gestures. A camera mounted inside the robot records the child’s eye contact. Psychologists and neurologists receive the information and can interpret the results of the robot’s interaction.

Children on the autism spectrum tend to like things that are predictable, while unpredictable situations may cause these children to get upset. TecO seeks to eliminate unpredictable responses by showing predictable behavior typical of a robot.

Psychologists note it takes about two months to see significant progress in most children who use TecO, although every child’s case is different. The number of times a child makes eye contact with the robot denotes progress, so a child shows better improvement with more eye contact.

Although the up-front costs may seem prohibitive, the designers say therapy sessions in a clinical setting cost an average of $140. TecO costs less than 10 of these normal therapy sessions.

Robots may offer one way to achieve therapeutic results in children on the spectrum, but psychologists, engineers and neurologists need to do more work in this emerging field.

Check out this robot that uses games to teach kids social and intellectual skills.

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