Kaspar the friendly robot helps autistic kids
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:04 PM
STEVENAGE, England -- Eden Sawczenko used to recoil when other little girls held her hand and turned stiff when they hugged her. This year, the 4-year-old autistic girl began playing with a robot that teaches about emotions and physical contact - and now she hugs everyone.
"She's a lot more affectionate with her friends now and will even initiate the embrace," said Claire Sawczenko, Eden's mother.
The girl attends a pre-school for autistic children in Stevenage, north of London, where researchers bring in a human-looking, child-sized robot once a week for a supervised session. The children, whose autism ranges from mild to severe, play with the robot for up to 10 minutes alongside a scientist who controls the robot with a remote control.
The robot, named Kaspar, is programmed to do things like smile, frown, laugh, blink and wave his arms. He has shaggy black hair, a baseball cap, a few wires protruding from his neck, and striped red socks. He was built by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire at a cost of about 1,300 pounds (US$2,118).
There are several versions of Kaspar, including one advanced enough to play Nintendo Wii. The robot's still in the experimental stage, and researchers hope he could be mass-produced one day for a few hundred dollars.
"Children with autism don't react well to people because they don't understand facial expressions," said Ben Robins, a senior research fellow in computer science at the University of Hertfordshire who specializes in working with autistic children.
"Robots are much safer for them because there's less for them to interpret and they are very predictable."
There are similar projects in Canada, Japan and the U.S., but the British one is the most advanced according to other European robot researchers not connected with the project.
Scientists at the University of Hertfordshire first began using a version of Kaspar in 2005. The newest model is covered in silicone patches that feel like skin to help children become more comfortable with touching people. So far, almost 300 kids in Britain with autism, a disorder that affects development of social interaction and communication, have played with a Kaspar robot as part of scientific research.
The robot has only a handful of tricks, like saying "Hello, my name is Kaspar. Let's play together," laughing when his sides or feet are touched, raising his arms up and down, or hiding his face with his hands and crying out "Ouch. This hurts," when he's slapped too hard.
But that is enough to keep autistic children enthralled. Ronnie Arloff, 4, was so eager to see Kaspar he banged on the door and shouted his name. Arloff opened his arms wide just like the robot. He also recognized facial expressions, saying "happy" when Kaspar was smiling and "sad" when he frowned.
Nan Cannon-Jones, an autism consultant at the school, said the robot helps children understand emotions and language. "After Kaspar says 'haha' when he's tickled, the children learn that's what laughing is," she said. Two of the 12 to 17 kids who attend the pre-school have refused to play with Kaspar outright.