Autism and Artificial Intelligence

At a university laboratory in Washington, Darwin-OP2, a robot which looks like a human, fiercely kicks a green ball across the floor. “I want to be friends and play soccer,” he says in a cold monotonous voice.

Darwin-OP2 is no toy. It’s one of the more advanced examples of research and development into what’s being labeled as assisted robotics and humanoid interaction. Darwin-OP2 has been programmed by a team of biomedical engineering professors at a leading university in the US. The project is aimed to help children with autism spectrum disorder get more engaged with the society. The main goal will be to utilize a robotic system for helping children with autism to communicate with others in a much easier and comfortable way.

The project, however, is in the early stages and much is still to be done. It focuses on how a robot can help children aged 5-10 years but is soon likely to include kids as young as three. The ultimate aim is to make the technology affordable to countless families in the US with children having autism spectrum disorder.

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Autism, in most cases, varies from child to child. But there are some common traits among all children. For instance, most autistic children avoid making eye contact. This makes it difficult for such children to interact with their family members, friends, playmates and others.

Scientists associated with the project claimed, their studies have revealed that children having autism spectrum disorder, are more comfortable to interact with robots because they are able to monitor and control their actions, which makes them more predictable compared to human playmates.

Kids with autism spectrum disorder usually face trouble to understand and engage another person’s emotion. But with a socially assistive robot, a child could be more effectively engaged sans being overwhelmed. These robots use artificial intelligence that analyzes a child’s behavior and then uses the collected data to engage with them.

Three different kinds of robots are currently being used for testing. One is a mini-robot which is connected to an iPad. It displays facial emotions. The second one is a medium robot which can perform various gestures and dance movements, responding to social cues.

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And then, of course, there’s Darwin-OP2, a bigger and more sophisticated robot which interacts with children by playing football and performs other activities. It can dance to music, and children with autism can follow the moves as well and dance along.

Scientists and therapists say that imparting social skills to children having autism calls for frequent repetition of actions, which is a perfect task for humanoids and robots. Besides, robots can help in parents of autistic children with applied behavior analysis therapy. Such a therapy requires long hours to be spent with the child, which may not be possible for parents who are both working. Moreover, robots have artificial intelligence that can collect data to lend useful analysis for parents, helping them comprehend their child’s behavior.

But these are early days of testing how robots and artificial intelligence can come to the help of autistic children.


by Kevin Carter