NAO robot aims to help kids with autism become more social

Pilot study aims to see if this will help them become more sociable

The 60-cm tall NAO is capable of exhibiting human-like behaviour, in this case, dancing to Korean hit Gangnam Style (above). -- ST PHOTO: NURIA LING
The 60-cm tall NAO is capable of exhibiting human-like behaviour, in this case, dancing to Korean hit Gangnam Style (above). -- ST PHOTO: NURIA LING
Associate Professor Chen I-Ming (above, left) and senior psychologist Goh Tze Jui with NAO the robot. -- ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

NAO, a 60cm-tall robot, buckled on its knees and crashed on to the floor.

"I am feeling dizzy, I need to sit down," its robotic voice droned.

A therapist then monitors a child's response to the falling robot, in order to gauge his level of social skills.

That is because having empathy for others, in this case, reaching out to break the humanoid robot's fall or asking if it is all right, may not come instinctively to some children.

Researchers and therapists from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have embarked on a study - the first in Singapore - to test whether a robot can help children with autism learn to be more social.

Autism is a developmental condition characterised by a person's repetitive behaviour and social deficit, or an inability to interact with others.

The pilot, which started in March, involves about 10 children aged six to 16 years old from IMH's Child Guidance Clinic who take part in weekly 15-minute sessions to interact with NAO.

During each session, the child is left with the robot, which is controlled remotely by a therapist outside the room. The robot holds a conversation with the child and responds to commonplace questions such as "How are you?"

It is also programmed to act out various scenarios with the aim of eliciting certain responses from the child.

A built-in vision sensor on the machine allows the therapist to keep the child in view and a camera records the entire proceedings for review thereafter.

The child is not able to see the therapist but a facilitator will be in the room to intervene if there is a need to.

NAO can exhibit human-like behaviour such as sneezing, dancing or even exclaiming "Oh my God!".

The thinking behind using robots to engage the children is that they will find navigating the complexity of social behaviour easier with robots as the exchanges tends to be simpler.

"Some may be afraid of talking to people but when they deal with robots, there is no such reservation," said Associate Professor Chen I-Ming from NTU, who heads the NTU team in the study.

Others may be more motivated to interact with a robot because of their fascination with technological gadgets.

A recent study on the use of robots in social settings done by the University of Notre Dame in the United States found improvements in conversational skills in children. The Singapore pilot study, which is estimated to cost about $50,000, is funded by NTU and the National Healthcare Group.

Preliminary findings should be ready by November.

Besides using NAO for therapy sessions with children who have autism, Prof Chen said the robot can be used in future to assess if a child has autism or determine its severity more objectively.

"Unlike human therapists, the robot is gender neutral and its facial expressions or the way it asks questions can be controlled," he noted. Diagnosis of autism has traditionally been plagued with subjectivity.

Already, senior psychologist Goh Tze Jui, who is also involved in the study, has seen children breaking out in dances with the robot, something rarely seen with human therapists.

"They are more patient with the robot than with humans but it is still too early to say if they have shown improvement."

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