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Talking Robots Play Part in Therapeutic Treatment for People With Special Needs

January 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Researchers at University of Notre Dame and University of Southern California have found that robots can be less intimidating than humans to some patients. Ray Suarez reports on how researchers are using machines as nontraditional therapists to treat conditions such as autism in children and strokes for seniors.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a science and medical story involving research from the frontiers of robotics.

Ray Suarez looks at how doctors are using high-tech toys to help people with special needs.

LIAM MCGUIRE, autistic child: What’s your favorite game?

COMPUTER VOICE: “Mario Cart,” the original.

RAY SUAREZ: In a carefully monitored session that seems more like playtime than therapy, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have enlisted an unusual therapist to assist their studies of children with autism, a two-foot robot named Kelly.

COMPUTER VOICE: My favorite sport is soccer.

RAY SUAREZ: Kelly is working with 11-year-old Liam McGuire and a co-therapist of the human kind, Kristin Wier.

KRISTIN WIER, psychologist: For Liam, Kelly has become a friend. I mean, he’s very excited to see her.

You can tell he lightens up when he sees Kelly. He leans forward. His posture changes. His eye contact is much stronger. I think it’s something he can relate to and feel successful with.

Robots like this one are being introduced in research settings where specialists are compiling data to see if the technology can assist individuals with special needs.

LIAM MCGUIRE: I got to skip school today. And it’s because of you guys.

COMPUTER VOICE: And it’s so cool. I am so glad.

RAY SUAREZ: Notre Dame psychology professors use a robot built in France by Aldebaran Robotics as a tool to encourage children with autism, who may struggle just to engage in simple conversation.

According to the Autism Society, 1 percent of American children ages three to 17 have an autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is a developmental disability which often includes delayed speech, a lack of interest in relationships, and limited eye contact. It is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, and the need for new tools in therapy is great.

LIAM MCGUIRE: It’s like I’m a really good guy. I am not weird. I am just — I’m very special.

RAY SUAREZ: Assistant professor Joshua Diehl directs the Notre Dame project.

JOSHUA DIEHL,University of Notre Dame: In my clinical experience, I have encountered a lot of individuals with autism who have this really intense interest in technology.

So, the idea of this project was to take this interactive robot, which is really interesting and involves technology, and use that to sort of facilitate social skills development in individuals with autism.

RAY SUAREZ: At the Laboratory For Understanding Neurodevelopment, or FUN Lab, a child meets with a robot and a therapist to work on set goals.

CHARLES CROWELL, University of Notre Dame: They have certain kinds of deficits related to their ability to interact with other humans and to socialize with people.

And at the same time, they have a clear focus on what’s called the world of objects, things, rather than people.

RAY SUAREZ: For Liam, the goals are to practice asking and answering questions and engage both the robot and the therapist in a three-way conversation.

Behind the two-way mirror, a graduate student writes responses for Kelly the robot. Professor Chuck Crowell helped program the robots.

CHARLES CROWELL: This kind of a tool might be an interesting way to bridge the gap, pull the child, if you will, from the world of objects and the focus on objects over to the world of humans, because it’s an object with human-like capabilities.

RAY SUAREZ: Kristin Wier works with children with special needs and co-teaches a course at Notre Dame about autism. The robots, she says, are not a cure, but a tool.

KRISTIN WIER: I think the robot presents a calm, controlled stimulator. Our human interaction is always unpredictable and can be exciting, or scary, or something. And I think Kelly presents a calm.

RAY SUAREZ: Laura McGuire is Liam’s mother.

LAURA MCGUIRE, mother of Liam McGuire: What we found was that the robot is safe. The robot’s facial features don’t change. The robot doesn’t gesture — I mean, it gestures, but in a more predictable, robotic way.

The robot doesn’t have tremendous inflection, changes in the voice. There’s not so much to figure out with talking to a robot, where there was a lot to figure out in talking to a human being.

JOSHUA DIEHL: We don’t want children with autism to learn to talk to robots. We want them to learn to talk to humans. So that’s been one of our essential questions, is, how do you get — if you learn a skill, talking with the robot, how do you get that to translate into an interaction with humans?

So, for example, one of the things that we were working on with Liam is to ask Kelly, for example, how was her day and what did she do today, what did she do yesterday? And, spontaneously, one time when — when his dad came home, he asked his dad how his day was, and he had never done that before, and it was a spontaneous, what did you do today?

RAY SUAREZ: But children with autism are just one group of people with special needs researchers hope robots can help.

Here in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California School of Engineering, they’re also pushing ahead on the frontiers of robotics, looking for new work for robots to do, not way off in the future, things like running and jumping, climbing stairs and carrying heavy loads. They’re convinced here that there are a lot of things that robots can be helping people with today, instead of waiting for far-off technologies.

It’s called socially assistive robotics. At USC’s Robotics Research Lab, roboticists who also work with children with autism have expanded their research into other special needs populations, notably the growing need for elderly care.

MAJA MATARIC, USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems: We need a face because people want to look at the robot and have a sense of what it’s intending to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Maja Mataric is the founding director of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems.

MAJA MATARIC: A very interesting area to explore is creating machines that can interact with people one-on-one to bridge what I call the care gap.

So there are a lot of people, numerous, thousands, even millions of people who need one-on-one care, whether it’s because they are aging in place, and they’re becoming lonely and isolated. They need to be reminded to be social, to walk around, to connect with their family, to take their medication.

JUAN FASOLA, USC Graduate Student: Jack, can I have you move your arms like this up here above your head like that?

RAY SUAREZ: USC Graduate student Juan Fasola conducts exercise sessions with elderly participants using a USC-designed robot named Bandit.

JUAN FASOLA: The robot’s intention is not to replace anybody, not to replace any of the human care, but rather to supplement that care, to provide that care where that care is not available or not cost-feasible.

So if you imagine a stroke patient, for example, they need to do eight hours of rehabilitation every day to progress in their injury, to heal.

And a therapist might be with them for one, maybe two hours before going on to another patient.

COMPUTER VOICE: Terrific. Great. Lower your left hand a little bit.

RAY SUAREZ: Following Bandit’s exercise program helps aging participants like 83-year-old Jack Frost keep not just their bodies in tune, but their minds as well.

JACK FROST, program participant: If I had a chance to work with this every day, I think it would help me in trying to improve my short-term memory, which I have kind of lost.

COMPUTER VOICE: Try and remember as many gestures as possible. Oh, that’s too bad. That was not the correct gesture.

RAY SUAREZ: The robot is not judgmental, so participants don’t feel embarrassed if they by perform tasks incorrectly.

JACK FROST: I think it’s easier for me to communicate directly with a robot, knowing I’m not going to get any feedback, like I might get from a human being.

RAY SUAREZ: And unlike computers, smartphones and laptops, people tend to ascribe attributes to robots, much like they would pets.

MAJA MATARIC: Something in our wiring gets us to be socially active and engaged with machines that can be socially active and engaging back with us. And so there’s tremendous potential to create machines that can engage with people and help people in their daily lives.

COMPUTER VOICE: Awesome.

CHARLES CROWELL: They have been in television shows and in our imagination, but they’re coming to be companions. They’re coming to be around us. And there are some people who predict that, within a few years, there’s going to be a robot in every home.

RAY SUAREZ: As more kids need help, as more people live longer, and as the U.S. wrestles with providing care and spending less money doing it, the roboticists figure, sooner or later, a mechanical friend will become part of your life, science fact, instead of science fiction.