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Unique Robot Helps Autistic Students

Whether you fear humans being overtaken by artificial intelligence or would welcome “The Jetsons” maid Rosie as one of your own, it’s clear that robots play an increasing role in modern living.

Along with the trend come a plethora of educational possibilities, and RoboKind is an innovator in this space. The “advanced social robotics” company developed a robot companion that functions as an education tool. Its name is Zeno, and right now it works mainly with autistic children.

zeno robotFred Margolin (at left), CEO of RoboKind, sees autistic students relating well to robots because of their consistent facial expressions and tone of voice.

“The robot is attempting to become [students’] friend, and because it’s not getting mad at them, we think the possibility of an angry student reaction is going to be a lot less than what actually happens with staff,” he said.

“The prime of the interactions (because after all, it is a robot) is with the face and the facial expressions. So we’ve sort of concentrated on perfecting that,” he said.  

Margolin added, “We’ve just created a technology that allows us to [talk to it] without external mics, like most robots have. You can have a normal conversation with it.”

“We engaged with two children at the autism treatment center who did not talk to staff virtually at all, and after 10 minutes they started talking to the robot. People were just absolutely amazed. In fact, the men of the place had tears in their eyes. So what you’re seeing is really a lot of engagement,” he said.

Zeno is most effective with Autism Spectrum Disorders levels 4-10. The robots offer individual attention, with 1:1 and sometimes 1:2 therapy sessions being most effective for autistic students. Zeno is capable of recording sessions with students for later expert review. This way, lessons can be modified according to the individual child’s needs. In addition, the robot offers a readout of the lesson over time, indicating its effectiveness.

zeno robot“We designed a one-year course for autism therapy. And the course has two sections. One is basically to teach [students] appropriate behavior in various social situations, and the other is to understand emotions…coming from other people,” explained Margolin.

Zeno’s CompuCompassion software can even recognize a child’s level of interest, agitation, etc. so that instructors can modify the presentation or take a break if needed.

“We have what I would call a very advanced version of what you know as Siri, but a much better version and to the point,” said Margolin.

He added, “A lot of times [autistic students] need significant repetition—a robot can do that, whereas it may be hard for staff to find the time.”

The lessons are well planned and carefully worded by Ph.D.-level professionals to ensure consistent quality of therapy. In addition, Zeno works with an iPad. After students view the correct behaviors, they can use the iPad for answering questions, to which Zeno can then react. Students choose whether they actually want to talk to the robot, which covers different levels of verbal skills when used in combination with the iPad.

The robot currently serves students in grades K-12, and Margolin shared that software will be developed to include more subjects for Zeno to cover. He even discussed the possibility of a marketplace along the lines of Apple’s app store. 

“We’re just starting to talk some of the big educational companies about converting a lot of these pretty remarkable courses that are on the iPad into use with the robot.”

For example, RoboKind plans to develop a course for early childhood reading, and Zeno may soon even act as a foreign language instructor.

“We think the robot is uniquely qualified to teach language, and we got a grant from the department of the National Science Foundation. We’re working with a company that created language learning for Department of Defense employees, and they’re converting that course onto the robot,” said Margolin.

RoboKind’s first Zeno cost about $16,000. Now, with software included, the robots go for under $5,000 (or $3,000 without educational software). Within two years, Margolin is confident they’ll be able to offer a home version for $600. The company’s goal is to significantly reduce therapy costs for parents with autistic children.

RoboKind recently received an award for Most Innovative education product at the annual SIIA Innovation Incubator Program.


Article by Jason Cunningham, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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