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Robot to the aid of autistic kids

The humanoid robot TecO is 50 cm tall, has a face and arms of a bear; it is made of aluminium and its operation is electric.

Scientists have created a robot with artificial intelligence that teaches children with autism to recognise facial expressions in people.

Children with autism have special difficulty in expressing emotions, usually have no social skills and face major problems when communicating.

Scientists have created a robot with artificial intelligence that teaches children with autism to recognise facial expressions in people. For representational purpose only. File Photo

The humanoid robot TecO is 50 cm tall, has a face and arms of a bear; it is made of aluminium and its operation is electric. It detects neural signals using a headset or a hood, which has electrodes mounted on the child’s head and records their signals.

The signals are sent to a computer that translates them into information that is interpreted by a psychologist or a neurologist.

“It detects certain intentions, such as moving an arm, if the kid is sleepy or alert, but doesn’t read thoughts, the expression must be made clear,” said David Silva Balderas, researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (Tec de Monterrey) in Mexico.

“If the robot registers sadness in the child, it then modifies its mode of action to change that feeling,” Mr. Balderas said.

Children with autism are stressed by human behaviour and causes them anxiety because it is unpredictable, whereas a robot can be made predictable, said Demi Grammatikou, member of the team that created TecO.

“What we have seen is that the technology caught their attention and using technological tools lowers their anxiety level,” said Mr. Grammatikou.

Using TecO as a tool in therapy for children with autism makes significant progress in only two months, although every child is different.

Emotions are measured through facial expressions, which traditionally is done by observation, but the robot uses cameras that record the number of times that the kid turns to see it, researchers said.

The eye contact between the two is what denotes progress, they said.

“It gives us tools to measure quantitatively what is happening, to see how many times the child looked at the robot,” said Mr. Grammatikou.

“The robot can see what the infant does, and independently decide what is needed. If there is no eye contact, TecO can make a sound or movement to regain the attention. Thus the child reads the robot and the robot the child.”

According to the World Health Organisation, one per cent of the world population suffers from autism.

“From a social point of view, it does not seem to impact so many people, but when you think about one per cent of the total population, is a significant number,” said Pedro Ponce Cruz, from Tec de Monterrey.

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