Robot reaches out to children with autism

Your gifts are further improving how Nao the robot can support children with autism.

Nao the humanoid robot has become  even better at helping children with  autism, thanks to a collaborative student  project funded by alumni.


University researchers had been  taking Nao into Topcliffe Primary School  in Castle Vale, Birmingham with positive  results but, while Nao was able to show  actions for the children to imitate, it was  harder for the robot to recognise what  the children were doing. 

Using alumni funding, students from  the Schools of Education and Computer  Science developed a game that used  artificial intelligence to help Nao  recognise emotions.

‘Understanding communication as  a two-way process is a key area for  children with autism, so for Nao to be  able to respond like this is important,’  says Dr Karen Guldberg, Director of  the Autism Centre for Education and  Research (ACER). ‘The tasks within the  game were designed to help children  recognise emotions by focusing on  body language.’

As well as enhancing the robot’s  capabilities, the project also benefited  the students. ‘It was incredible seeing  the children trying to comfort the  robot when it cried, or talking into  its ears,’ says Tristan Bell (second  year, BSc Computer Science).

‘The project showed the value of an  interdisciplinary team, and made clear  how different children with autism can  be when working with robots. It was  a fantastic experience.’

So how might the project change  how Nao works in the future? Dr Nick  Hawes, Lecturer in Intelligent Robotics,  explains: ‘In writing the software, the  students focused on trying to enrich  interactions but the project showed that  actually the interaction needs to be  simpler. For example, we thought the  robot’s responses were slow, whereas  we know now this is perfectly suited  to children with autism who need  a lot of processing time.’

Dr Guldberg adds: ‘Nao is  making a real difference to the  lives of these children. The  transformation in them when  they see Nao is incredible; they  absolutely adore it. I would like  to thank everyone whose gifts  made this happen, because the  project would not have been  possible without your support.’ 

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Did you know?

A 58cm tall humanoid robot made by French company Aldebaran Robotics; Nao can dance, drive a (small) car and has even circumnavigated the globe for charity.