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Jane Asher Lecture -  Children with Autism at the University of Hertfordshire -  Photography 2013 © Pete StevensOnce either the threat or comedy relief in science fiction stories, robots have broken out of our factories and into our homes–and are making a real difference to the lives of disabled people.

“The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With’.”

So wrote the late, great Douglas Adams in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, while he was satirising dubious claims made by technology firms about their often-less-than-perfect products, others have taken seriously the use of robotics beyond just building cars and cleaning our homes.

“Children with autism are very comfortable with computers as it is a very predictable environment with a predictable and safe interface,” explains Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, of the University of Hertfordshire. “Robots are like computers but with a physical presence – and like a computer they are predictable.”

KASPAR is a child-sized humanoid robot designed to help children with autism develop their social interaction skills. The doll, and the software which runs it, have been developed by Professor Dautenhahn and her Adaptive Systems research group in the University’s School of Computer Science.

“Although KASPAR has a human shape and human behaviour, it is introduced as a robot and never as a child,” she adds. “And because KASPAR is predictable, the children relax and start to play – starting to learn life skills like communication and social interaction through their play. Parents and teachers have been surprised by the results they have witnessed – some seeing their child interact, mimic or make eye contact for the first time in their school.”

According to the National Autistic Society, Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them. While currently incurable, studies suggest that therapeutic treatment can lead to significant improvements in behaviour and social activity during the rest of their lives.

“Early intervention is vital in improving the lives of children with autism as well as those of their families and carers,” insists the actress, author and President of the National Autistic Society, Jane Asher. “Introducing KASPAR can help to give these children the tools they need to help themselves. It has been wonderful to see the impact that KASPAR has had and I commend the University for taking this research so far.”

Children are able to interact with KASPAR (Kinesics And Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics) in different play scenarios, which can be developed according to specific therapeutic or developmental objectives specific to each particular child. The robot has a dedicated interface for remote control, but can also play games with children autonomously.
KASPAR’s appearance is deliberately human-like, but not human. “The size, posture and clothing were all chosen to be ‘child-friendly’, so that autistic children see the robot as a toy to have fun with, rather than a person to be wary of,” Professor Dautenhahn says. “The design of enjoyable games that children can play with the robot further supports the impression of a non-threatening, friendly robot.”

Another consideration was to ensure KASPAR was non-gender specific. Most of the children, with whom Professor Dautenhahn and her team have worked so far, have been boys, so the toy has also been dressed as a boy. However, a deliberate “universal appearance” means that children are welcome to interpret KASPAR however they wish. “In the future, following requests from teachers, we plan to have different versions of KASPAR that reflect things such as gender,” Professor Dautenhahn says.

KASPAR is part of a wider family of robots being studied by the team at Hertfordshire to explore how humans and robots interact with each other. Their eventual aim is to create socially interactive robot companions to help groups such as children with special needs or the elderly to stay in their own homes for longer. Though not, as in the 2013 film Robot & Frank, create robot butlers able to to help an ex-jewel thief complete one last heist!
NAO (pronounced “now”) is a slightly different approach to the same challenge of helping young children with autism coordinate their attention with other people and their environment. The two-foot tall humanoid figure – developed by a team of mechanical engineers and autism experts at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee – looks much more like a robot than a doll.

Nevertheless, this diminutive “front man” for an elaborate system of cameras, sensors and computers, has shown its worth. Researchers on the project have reported that children with autism in general paid more attention to the robot and indeed followed its instructions almost as well as they did those of a human therapist.

A different use of robotics to aid disabled people is the Hybrid Assistive Limb developed by Cyberdyne Inc. in Japan. Consisting of robotic “limbs” and a backpack holding the suit’s computing and battery power, sensors on the skin of the wearer pick up the weak bio-signals generated when they attempt to move a limb, and the “suit” supports the movement by operating its own motors – all in real time.

Given European approval last August – a CE Mark for medical equipment – this robotic exoskeleton can help people carry out a variety of every day tasks: standing up from a seat, walking, climbing up and down stairs, lifting heavy objects. It’s chief developer, Professor Sankai Yoshiyuki of the University of Tsukuba, believes that wearing HAL for a certain period could also encourage the regeneration of functions in a user’s brain, nerves, and muscles – for example, aiding a user with weakened legs to eventually walk unaided.

Science fiction is often thought to predict the future, or at least help us imagine it. Let’s just hope that neither the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) nor its developer, Cyberdyne Inc. in Japan, follow their namesakes in iconic SF films 2001: a space odyssey and The Terminator, and instead genuinely give people of all ages and abilities a better quality of life in the future!

KASPAR website:

First published by Access magazine (#15, May 2014).