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Can This Robot Help Some Kids With Autism Form Stronger Bonds With People?
December 4, 2012
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It seems a little counter-intuitive: using a robot to help some kids with autism feel more comfortable around other human beings.

But that's exactly what Bandit, the robot in the photo above, is designed to do.

Bandit was built by a team of computer scientists at the University of Southern California (USC). The team is led by Maja Matari'c, who used to research military applications.

Matari'c told Popular Science that once she started raising a family, she "didn't want to be the mommy who builds killer robots."

So she's working on robots she hopes will heal instead (that's her in the shot below).


So far, Bandit has achieved some encouraging results: many of the 14 kids that have interacted with the robot became more sociable and more vocal after spending time with it.

The human/robot interactions are part of a research initiative at USC, where a team is working on building robots sympathetic and sensitive enough to serve as both therapists and playmates for some kids with autism.

Why robots?

There are a few reasons. For one, many autism experts believe that kids with the condition respond more naturally to machines than to people.

Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the University of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre, believes robots, computers and electronic gadgets may appeal to some autistic children because, unlike people, electronic devices are predictable.

Another reason to build robots for autism therapy is the shortage of available human therapists.

According to Health Canada, one in every 150-160 children has autism spectrum disorder, while two 2009 studies commissioned by the U.S. government found the number could be as high as one in 100 kids.

There just aren't enough therapists out there to care for them all (robots, no matter how advanced they get, are not expected to replace human therapy - but they could serve as an important addition to it).

And therapy is time-consuming: it can take as much as 40 hours a week to effectively treat an autistic child.

If robots can be built that are sensitive and advanced enough to treat kids with autism, then they could be sent home with the child to begin treatment right after diagnosis.

And there would be no need for people living in remote areas to travel to a treatment centre every day - much of the therapy could happen at home, instead.

Bandit is one step on the road to creating that advanced robot.


At the moment, Bandit is only programmed to create simple facial expressions and movements, and it moves around on two wheels.

But the researchers on the project are working to give the robot more advanced decision-making abilities, and increased sensitivity to the mood of autistic kids.

It's a complicated process. Some of the kids who have worked with Bandit were immediately drawn to the robot. But others were put off by the machine.

One boy cowered in the corner whispering "go... go... go..." until researchers stopped the experiment.

And Bandit is not yet advanced enough to fully "read" patient responses, or to make the kind of subtle changes in behaviour that a human therapist can.

But the goal is to make a version of Bandit within the next ten years that has many more capabilities, and that is affordable enough that many families with autistic kids will be able to bring one home.

Within a decade, the team wants to design a robot that costs no more than $1,000, and is able to help children in their homes.

As for whether any robot, no matter how advanced, can reliably offer therapy to children with autism, there are no guarantees. This summer, Matari'c and her team will hold much broader trials.

The results should tell them whether or not they're on the right track.


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