Robots helping kids

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Robotics is making inroads into society, not only in factories and industry but also in homes and schools, where social robots are helping children cope better with conditions such as diabetes and autism.

A robot and child

This week, thousands of people – young and old – are exploring the weirdness and wonders of robotics technology during the European Robotics Week, which is taking place in labs, museums, public squares and schools all over Europe.

But robotics offers more than just show and tell. It can make a real difference in the lives of children who, for example, struggle with diabetes or autism, or need extra help in the classroom.

‘Nao’ the friendly (but not perfect) robot

Recently, scientists showed that social robots can help diabetic children accept the nature of their condition and become more confident about their futures. In the four-and-a-half year ALIZ-E project, a research team led by Plymouth University studied the interactions between hundreds of European children aged 7-11 and a robot prototype called ‘Nao’.

Standing around 60 centimetres tall and featuring specially designed speech recognition software, ‘Nao’ helped the youngsters in keeping a diary of food intake, insulin injections and blood sugar levels. Through quizzes and games it also helped the kids to better understand diabetes and the huge amount of information they are given.

According to ALIZ-E leader Tony Belpaeme, the robot is not just a novelty factor to catch the children’s attention but a tool to engage and motivate them. “In many cases where a child has diabetes, you notice their confidence has been knocked and the robot can help restore that. By personalising its responses and recognising the children it has met before, the robots can support and educate, and we have seen many times the positive impact this is having on children and their families,” Belpaeme says in a Plymouth University news release.

The European Commission-funded study has not only shed light on how children relate to social robots, but also how robots need to be designed to maximise their impact when used for educational or therapeutic purposes.

“The robot needs to personalise what it does.  If it treats children on an individual level, they immediately relate to it – it taps into our primitive need to interact and communicate,” Belpaeme says in the release. “One of the things that does appeal to children is that the robot makes mistakes – if it never did so, it could become intimidating. It does make the child realise they too don’t have to be perfect all of the time.”

Robots to assist autistic children

The researchers also showed the robots have potential to act as classroom assistants helping pupils who may be in danger of falling behind their peers. The team is now exploring additional uses for the robots, for instance to help children on the autistic spectrum.

“Our initial work shows it could have an incredibly positive impact on those children, and given that autism can impact heavily on someone’s ability to communicate and build relationships, we now need to establish why it seems they can relate to a tiny robot. From that, we can explore how widely we can use the robot as a therapeutic tool and can we, in fact, use it to teach about wider social interactions,” Belpaeme says.

As shown in a number of recent reports by the BBC, there is indeed growing evidence that robots can help autistic children not only to learn but also to improve their communication skills.

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