Nao Robot Goes to School to Help Kids With Autism

The little humanoid wants to help kids with special needs and autism

2 min read
Nao Robot Goes to School to Help Kids With Autism

Nao is a busy robot. The little humanoid plays soccer, helps with research, works at hospitals, performs comedy routines, and even grooms cats. Now it's going to school, to help children with autism and special needs.

Earlier this week Aldebaran Robotics announced the launch of ASK Nao (Autism Solution for Kids), a program that will pair its little humanoid robot Nao with children with autism. The company hopes to build on the success of previous studies, which showed that some children with autism achieved a 30 percent increase in social interactions and better verbal communication when a robot is in the same room. The studies also showed that these improvements can extend to interactions with parents and therapists.

"We have developed educational games that allow children to work on verbal and non-verbal communication, emotional intelligence, mimicking, and even basic academic skills," explains Olivier Joubert, autism business unit manager at Aldebaran. "After a year of testing, gaining the positive feedback from our beta testing schools in Britain and the United States, and the encouragement of the autism community, we have been driven to launch this initiative to help children with autism throughout the world realize their full potential."

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Several friendly robots, including Keepon, Hanson Robokind, Bandit, and Kaspar, among others, have already demonstrated some degree of success as aids in autism evaluation and therapy. But Aldebaran wants to have an even bigger impact by fostering a community of developers, therapists, researchers, teachers, and parents to work together. Aldebaran says it has developed a user-friendly interface for teachers to help them plan, monitor, and analyze Nao interactions with children to determine their impact on learning.

The company has also built a variety of apps for use in the classroom, to help kids learn about emotions and body language and let them practice imitation, turn taking, and other social skills. And teachers and developers can create their own apps and share them with the community.

"Nao has the potential to be an outstanding teaching resource," says Ben Waterworth, a teacher at Topcliffe School, in the U.K. "The ASD [autism spectrum disorders] children benefit a lot from using Nao. You see a different side of them when they are working with him. You see them comfortable with Nao, responding to him and I just think these are features you just would not see with a human. They would be more shy with that person, they would be more withheld or withdrawn, whereas with Nao they are more outgoing."

The program is not just a marketing move by Aldebaran, which markets the Nao humanoid for up to US $16,000 for the full model. According to the company, 1 in 88 children (1 in 54 boys) are affected by autism, which is also the fastest-growing serious developmental disability. So the demand for the technology is certainly there, and growing. It's another example of how humanoid robots can make a genuine impact rather than simply dazzling us as the latest technological showpieces.

[ Aldebaran Robotics' ASK Nao ]

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"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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