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12 The digital world

childrenwith autism

Robot inspires

Children with autism find it hard to understand people’s facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. Unable to make sense of and relate to those around them, they often ‘shut down’. Although autism is a lifelong disorder, there’s mounting evidence that early intervention can bring real benefits in terms of how it develops in adult life.

Since the late 1990s Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn has been involved in pioneering research and development in the use of robots as social companions, and in particular for children with autism. Kerstin Dautenhahn is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at our School of Computer Science, and an internationally-renowned authority in social robotics and human-robot interaction.

Professor Dautenhahn and her team first designed KASPAR (short for Kinesics and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics) in 2005, as part of a study for the European Union (EU) Robotcub project. Realising the robot’s potential as a therapeutic tool for children with autism, the team developed the prototype further.

Initial tests were promising, and this led to field trials in collaboration with several specialist schools in Hertfordshire, Essex and London.

KASPAR has a high degree of flexibility in terms of movements and programming options. It is capable of producing arm gestures and speech, and of playing drumming and computer games by means of a wii remote control. The robot’s face, which has robotic skin with sensors, can show expressions, and has eyelids that can blink.

contact, seek to share experiences or mimic actions for the first time when playing with KASPAR. These small steps are big breakthroughs for the children, and their families and teachers,’ explains Professor Dautenhahn.

Research output has been widely published in international journals and

So far, KASPAR has been trialled with fifty children across the autistic spectrum. As a social mediator, the robot has produced remarkable results for some children: ‘Parents and teachers are amazed at the transformation in children’s behaviour – some seeing the children make eye

conference papers. KASPAR is also featured in Big Ideas for the Future, a report from Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Universities UK. The robot has been showcased at The Autism Show this year, and at several national science exhibitions and museums. The team’s work

An interactive humanoid robot called KASPAR is helping children with autism to open up to their families, carers and other children. This breakthrough has attracted widespread attention from the media and autism professionals.

was presented in the Houses of Parliament during a special session on autism. This has influenced the UK government’s view in this area, with the KASPAR project featuring in the Department of Health’s report Research and Development Work Relating to Assistive Technology 2009-2010.

So what’s next for KASPAR? ‘Field results are over and above what we expected. We are hugely encouraged by this progress and by the interest from autism experts, as well as teachers and parents. The fact that KASPAR is one of the three key platforms in the EU Roboskin project, and is seen to compete favourably with other highly engineered and commercially available humanoid robots, suggests a bright future for KASPAR in this and other application areas. As intellectual property holders of this technology, we’re now looking to extend the project’s scope in the hope of moving it closer to commercialisation, which is a necessary step towards making the robot widely available. Our next goal is to build many more KASPARs, ideally over thirty, and to undertake a five-year, larger-scale evaluation study, working with around two hundred children,’ explains Professor Dautenhahn.

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