Kaspar, the robot that is changing the lives of children with autism around the UK and internationally, has been selected to be part of a special exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
Opening at the Science Museum on 8th February 2017, the Robots exhibition is the most significant collection of humanoid machines ever displayed and charts the 500-year human history of recreating ourselves in robotic form.
Kaspar is a child-sized, socially interactive robot developed by the University of Hertfordshire to help children with autism. It uses realistic, but simplified human-like features to help them learn how to socialise, interact and communicate.
The robot can, for example, talk, comb its hair, hold a toothbrush, play the drums, name parts of its body, and even sing nursery rhymes with the children.
Helping children with autism
The key aim of Kaspar is to help children with autism explore basic human communication and emotions as well as learn about socially acceptable physical interaction. Children with autism can sometimes find this kind of interaction difficult so Kaspar acts as a mediator between them and other children, teachers, family and therapists.
So far Kaspar has been used in long-term studies with approximately 170 autistic children in the UK and overseas. This has been achieved by using just 28 custom-made Kaspar machines. But the next step for the team is to take the successful Kaspar prototype from the lab and into every school, home and, potentially, hospital or clinic that needs one. And the potential is huge.
According to the National Autistic Society, there are currently 700,000 people with autism in the UK, meaning autism is part of the daily lives of around 2.8 million people.
Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, said: ‘Kaspar has been helping many children with autism for over a decade now. The technology has consistently demonstrated its worth in schools across the UK and abroad. In addition, field studies in homes were encouraging and studies have started using Kaspar in hospitals.
The next step
‘We now want to take this success to the next step and ensure Kaspar’s work can be replicated in those places it is needed the most. We want to turn our prototype into an advanced, robust and commercially viable robot that is available to any child around the world. We have the expertise and the technology is ready to go, we just need the funding to take this project to the next level.’
Kaspar is also used to help break the social isolation, which can sometimes result from autism, and encourage better use of non-verbal communication (NVC) and verbal language. But it is not just those with autism Kaspar can help.
Psychologists and therapists that have worked with Professor Dautenhahn and her team say the robot could also assist children with other social interaction difficulties and communication issues brought on by a form of psychological trauma. The technology could also support children with Specific Language Impairments.
Kaspar helps a child’s social interaction by using skin sensors on various parts of its body including on its cheeks, torso, arms, palms and feet. These sensors allow the robot to be programmed to respond to touch. This autonomous response, together with the pre-programmed responses that can be triggered remotely by teachers, therapist, or another child, enable Kaspar to encourage certain tactile behaviours in the children and discourage inappropriate ones.
For example, when the robot is tickled it will laugh and reply in a friendly manner, but if a child is ‘playing rough’, squeezes too hard or pinches the robot, Kaspar will tell the child that it ‘hurts’ and express appropriate body language.
Professor Dautenhahn added: ‘Kaspar has the potential to help many children worldwide and our growing body of research evidence shows this help could stretch beyond those with autism. The robot and accompanying technology means we have real opportunity to help many families whose children have trouble communicating, sharing emotions or have even suffered psychological trauma.’
Image credit: University of Hertfordshire
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the University of Hertfordshire.