The University of Hertfordshire is trialing its Kaspar humanoid robot worldwide to try and bring autistic children out of their shell, communicating on a level comfortable for them.
For example, one school in Australia has put the robot into action and says it’s having a profound impact on the children.
The robot starts a conversation by identifying an area the child is interested in – for example, their favourite pizza toppings. Using these as an entry into the child’s trust, Kaspar can then ensure the child can communicate at a level that’s comfortable for them, while teaching them too.
Kaspar does look a little strange, with wide-set eyes and minimal facial expressions. This is because researchers don’t want to intimidate children. Kaspar’s a child sized robot too, his smaller size a making children feel like they can trust him because he’s physically on their level as well as mentally on their level.
His face was actually modelled on a child’s resuscitation mask, because it lent itself to the expressionless features the researchers thought would have the best reception.
“For autistic children, meeting a new person can be overwhelming or frightening even, and so conducting that interaction through the robot can be a nice way of bringing those people together,” Mr Brown said.
“It’s another tool in our toolkit for working with any children or anybody who has any sort of social communication difficulties,” he said.
However, what must be made clear is that Kaspar isn’t just a toy. It’s a learning aid that will help children learn how to communicate with both other children and adults more effectively, without being scared or overwhelmed.
“At the end of the day what we want is the kids to learn how to interact with humans, not how to interact with robots,” CSIRO research scientist David Silvera-Tawil said.
“It’s not a toy. We have to be very clear that it’s not a peer that they can play with and interact with…it’s a tool to help learning.”