In a small, sparsely furnished room, a young boy in a black T-shirt backs himself into a corner. He's cautious. Cameras capture his movements, and microphones record every sound. But this doesn't intimidate him; he doesn't even seem aware that he's being observed. His mom, sitting nearby, is not the object of his focus either. Brian (his name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is autistic, and he's staring across the room at a two-wheeled, gray, humanoid robot with big, cartoonish eyes. The machine, Bandit, is roughly Brian's size, and it has been trying to engage him by slowly rolling toward him.
Bandit uses infrared sensing and cameras to calculate Brian's position. Seeing that the boy is backing away, the robot tries a different approach. It stops moving and makes a "come-here" gesture, waving him closer. It works. Brian approaches and then stands alongside Bandit, shoulder-to-plastic-shoulder. Bandit stops moving, and Brian backs off. The boy is like a boxer sizing up an opponent. Finally, emboldened, Brian steps up to the robot and leans his face toward it, curious and confident. For the researchers observing the interaction through a two-way mirror in an adjoining room, this small gesture is an encouraging sign. The boy is warming up to the machine, and that's the point.
This unusual pair is part of a research initiative at the University of Southern California to build robots sympathetic and sensitive enough to serve as both therapists and playmates to kids with autism. Bandit is programmed to perform simple facial expressions and movements, and researchers are working to give the robot the ability to make complex decisions in response to the child's behavior. This way, Bandit and robots like it could draw socially detached kids into simple games, like Simon Says or hide-and-seek and, ultimately, social activities with people. As USC computer scientist and project leader Maja Matari´c explains, "The robot is a catalyst for social interaction."
In its current form, Bandit has only rudimentary social skills. For instance, it cannot yet understand speech; a researcher in the other room must command the robot to respond if the child speaks to it. But early results are encouraging. Matari´c's team has conducted experiments similar to the interaction between Bandit and Brian with 14 other autistic children, most between five and nine years old. Some of the kids were incapable of speech, while others could talk in full sentences but were prone to physical tics like hand-flapping or obsessions with moving objects like trains. The interactions lasted on average about five minutes—not long enough to produce permanent behavioral changes—but many of the children became more sociable, and more vocal, with a robot in the room.
That may seem surprising, since robots are hardly known for warmth and sociability. Yet there is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. "They find unlawful situations toxic," he says. "They can't cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects."
Perfecting a robot that bridges the gap will call for advances in almost every facet of modern robotics: artificial intelligence, machine vision, mechanical and electrical design, signal processing. Among other requirements, robot therapists must be subtle enough to respond to their patients without scaring them away, and smart enough to identify and react to autistic behaviors. For instance, if a child starts rocking back and forth, which can be a sign of increased anxiety, the robot should be able to recognize the motion and modify its behavior until the child appears more comfortable. "Yes, there's work to be done," Matari´c acknowledges. "But it's doable. What I want is a robot that can sell for the price of a laptop, a decade from now."
Thank you for this article. I can tell you, as a 21-year-old male with Aspberger's Syndrome (an affliction on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum), that author Gregory Mone is absolutely correct: machines, especially robots and computers, are simpler for autistic people to interact with because they are inherently simple. At the bottom level, they operate on digital (meaning binary) signals: zero or one, on or off. People are analog.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you: regardless of all the advances we've made in artificial intelligence (which as a gamer, I see every day), even the most intelligent computer can't do one particular thing, something even a human toddler can: create art. But people being analog also means they're often difficult for people like me to relate to.
P.S. It's also nice to see an autism article that avoids the whole vaccines-cause-autism bull[expletive]. For the record: VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM!!! That's been disproven I don't know how many times; anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
The face is so simple yet extremely expressive, good work.
Finally someone i can agree with starsword finally, i absolutely hate it when these over paranoid parents blame the vaccines its just annoying hell i got mine and i am not autistic i am a little crazy but thats the way i choose to live so ha!!
P.S. by the way starsword you should express your inner feelings then you should damn well swear.....No pressure.Ha!
Great article. Robots, as well as mobile apps and computer programs, are introducing new ways of treating autism, helping affected individuals express themselves. We’re always looking into novel uses of technology that help transform how we understand and treat diseases.
It’s one of several health issues we discuss on Facebook: www.facebook.com/healthymagination Feel free to join the conversation.
I am autistic I have aspberger,s syndrome and I now the difficulty of trying to make friends if this does help kids with autism make more friends then that,s very good but there could be some repercussions but we don,t now what they exactly are yet.
Although the robot does have whiffs of that, UUUUGHHH CREEPY, uncanny vally effect, it is quite cute in a robot way.
Thats what the rest of the robot making community needs to understand. Make robots look like cool robots, not look like humans.
@ taking and starsword:
Same here, except... i don't see the social difficulty as a bad thing. it lets me focus on the things that actually matter, like putting food on the table, paying bills and getting work done. socializing is a distraction from important thing necessary to survival.(food, money, etc.)
I'm glad this didn't exist for it to treat me. i almost feel bad for the asperger kids that have to deal with this piece of junk.
though the advancement in AI is quite respectable. i just hate what it's being used for. plenty of more useful things for it.(military, business applications etc.) *sigh*
oh and by the way, not all of us have problems expressing ourselves. i sure don't.(at least not when it comes to artistic creativity.)(socializing, that's another story. not that i care.)
"But people being analog also means they're often difficult for people like me to relate to."
hmm, maybe that's why i like machines more than about half the people i run across on a day-to-day basis. O_o
my girlfriend has aspirgers syndrome and i can honestly say that after witnessing some of the issues she faces through life, i really think this would help a lot of kids who have autism,
on a random note (i met her in our schools "learning center" which im in because of my "selective mutism" and she was in for aspirgers. although she has now graduated high school and im only a sophomore...DAMMIT!! lol )
but even with her aspirgers i still love her more then anyone or anything thing on this planet ;D
oops added an extra "thing"
your 100% right ...my girlfriend has autism and the number one thing i love about her is her PERSONALITY!!! its unexoplanable and undescribable...shes funny..sometimes completely loopy in her logic(not idiotic just doesnt make sense :D ) and she is very good at drawing without having taken any lessons and she is very good at singing. as for social problems the only real problem she has is say "if she got in a car accident she would freak out" and she cant tell if someonme is happy mad sad embarrased etc..
but as you said about yourself she can also very easily express her feelings...(although sometimes ..OK usually i cant figure out wtf she is "feeling" because she has an expressionless face.lol :)
My daughter is on the severe side of the spectrum. She is non-verbal, but she has a very good personality. She is funny in her own way. Up until recently she did not interact with others her own age. She would interact with older kids and adults, but as she has gotten older (she is 15) she has started to interact with her peers especially when it comes to music and dancing.
I find this very interesting. My daughter, who is 11, is high-functioning Autistic. While I've never seen her "relate" better to inanimate objects, the idea that the predictability of them appeals to Autistic individuals is compelling.
Since my daughter is high-functioning, she has not had as many of the struggles as other people do, but she does find it difficult, even now, after years of intervention, to read body language. A robot that does not show obvious body language and yet is still appealing and curious to an Autistic person has a lot of validity. It certainly cannot, and should not, replace interventions and support for these individuals, but for those further on the spectrum, it has distinct advantages.
Thanks for the information, PS; this latest breakthrough could lead to many more.
@logical_atheist I understand your point how being social might distract you from the stuff that "directly" are necessary to survival but honestly once you enjoy being social it's needed (I believe) to really enjoy your life to the fullest...
I'm not sure in your case but I rarely remember a night of me playing video games as special ( unless I just got a new game that I've been wanting for a long time) compared to lets say a night going out with my friends and having fun. That's something that my brain remembers for weeks/months and maybe years if something especially memorable happens.
anyway, as for the robot I think it's a good idea. Over time it might help children with autism develop the ability to express themselves or read other peoples emotions which I think is one of the biggest problem with autism...
my resource on vitamins : www.wisemensvitamins.com
From TV, reading the printed News, searching the Internet, you'd believe that only children born lately have autism. Book's by the hundreds are being written daily.
In the 40's, 50's and 60's "experts" spouted that the cause of autism was the - mother's fault - by how the child was "raised" in early childhood; then this doctor in the UK, Andrew Wakefield - (license finally revoked) preached and wrote in medical journals that autism was caused by childhood MMR immunizations - now found to be completely false. Next, others spouted that it was caused by gluten's & other foods - now also found to be completely false. Now its try correcting autism with "behavior modification", like "Pavlov's dogs" !!! :-O We've also got anti-war activist & vitamin D pill pusher, doctor? (John Cannell); a wacko PhD from another planet (Peter V. Calabria); a ex playboy bunny, (Jenny MaCarthy) all spouting expert knowledge as to the cause of autism. If you need a good laugh, - google them - and see what shows up.
These and many other "snake-oil" salesmen are still coming out of the woodwork in the media and on the internet. It makes for great "sensational journalism"!
My wife and I live in Scottsdale AZ and we will be married 46 years this November. We have an 'autistic daughter' who still lives with us. She is now 44 years old. Yes 44!!! A lost autistic generation. With 24 hour/day for 44 years my wife and I ARE autism experts and know first hand what AUTISM IS, and what autism IS NOT!!!
Its being reported that the rate of autism is exploding. That's true as doctors now understand the TRUE characteristics of autism. But, this exploding increase in numbers is also caused by many doctor's of-late misdiagnosing children that have (similar characteristics), as being autistic. Later, when these "misdiagnosed children" now become "normal" because of changes in their diet or "behavior modification" or medications - miracle cures get published!!!
Now someone working on their robotic PHD thesis says, lets try using ROBOTS on autistic people and see what happens. Have you ever seen how they train monkeys to act “human-like”.
The medical community has found NO CAUSE - they have NO CURE - there is NO magic FIX. Adding to this, the media has lead people to believe that autism is a “new generational medical problem” that only "children-of-late" have, and of those rarely mentioned adult autistic people, that they are all "mental savants" like Temple Grandin or Dustin Hoffman in the movie "rainman".
It would be nice - for a change, - if SOMEONE would write about what we as a society can do for these autistic adults who cannot care for themselves, - many many many thousands, - that soon will have no-one & no-place to go. Autistic adults do not "fit" into 'assisted living' or 'group homes'. Their aging parents or relatives who have cared for them 24/7 for many years, - suffer selflessly the most in silence, - every minute of every day.
David & Mary
I was also born with Asperger Syndrome. I sympathize strongly with David and Mary. They are correct about all the snakeoil the media potentiates about Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Too often people want to hear anything but the truth, because it has been bitter to swallow. ASDs are hereditary genetic traits, that will have a cure in adulthood only when we are able to change the adult brain orders of magnitude more easily than today. That is coming, but it is 10-20 years away. Perhaps prevention in-utero, through genetic testing and manipulation will be possible in 5-10 years.
Meanwhile, people shy away from the genetic basis of ASDs. I have often found that even highly educated ASD parents exude a guilty feeling about this, even though no one is to blame for how the dice roll when each act of conception occurs. In addition, they shy from the most obvious reason for the increase in the rate of births of people with ASDs.
That is a 2-phase process. Since the industrial revolution opened up niches where a strongly focused individual could be productive, people at the least affected end of the Autistic Spectrum could survive, and often thrive, in spite of Aspie traits, like taking other's statements literally.
In the old agrarian cultures, where subsistence farming was the norm, villages lived too close to the edge of survival to support people who could not read other villagers, and respond in the social dance. If a farmer says to "Fred", a 15 years old Aspie, ..."Fred, go out and plow all the South Forty today," Fred will probably do so, but may take the instructions so literally he plows under the irrigation ditch that runs through the field, cutting off water to other fields in the village, decreasing the harvest significantly.
Later that winter, in "the hungry time" between January first and the middle of March, 5-10 more villagers starve to death than would have without Fred's literal focused action. Fred has a chance, between the middle of March and the first of May, of turning up face down in a ditch, with the back of his head bashed in. Aspies would have a lower chance of survival, outside places like monasteries, or being a "rich eccentric", both of which have low reproductive rates.
Then comes the industrial revolution, and Aspie traits shift from being, in total, less productive, to being, in total, more productive, because of that same mental focus. More survive to reproduce. Then comes the computer revolution between 1975 and 2000. The computer industry brings large numbers of such people together, right next to each other in cubicles, gives them huge amounts of money for what they do, and lets them breed! Not too surprisingly the result is larger numbers of children with ASDs, in exactly the places one would expect, like Silicon Valley, Silicon Forest, and other "high tech" hotspots.
People seem to feel this is both a harsh indictment of our ancestors' behaviors, and a threat to ASD populations in the future, especially to those who want us to return to "our agrarian roots". It is no such thing. It describes behavior you would expect from a species of large obstreperous primates in the past. In the future, the high probability is that we will have means to bring social networking skills better than those of current neurotypical humans to the ASD community, right alongside enhancing neurotypicals themselves in other ways.
I am an Army brat, so it was quite natural that I attended St.John's Military Academy in Delafield Wisconsin. It was at this school where I observed my first examples of Autism. The new boy across the hall was an A student, senior, and had no idea whatsoever how to deal with other human beings. He had other quirks such as not being able to tie his shoes. In all though he was capable of accomplishing much. His father was of all things, a physician. Now if a healer can dump their child at a military academy then robotics is an even more needed application than this author can imagine. This is of course, not mentioning how the other senior cadets treated this man. It was shameful!
Robots yes, autism, no!
I too agree with Starsword's comments.
I have been writing papers on the use of computer technologies (of which robots are but one category) since 1983. I was using the sames ideas as Starsword expreses in his comment. Computer being based upon logical programing application are far more predictable than human beings.That really helps constructing concepts in the early learning phases. In addition computer outputs are more stable: according to specific conditions the outputs tend to repeat very faithfully the same answers, that is a tremendous help in making sense of the complex world that surrounds many autistic people who can be overwhelmed by too many stimuli and somewhat unpredictable answers from people which can react very differently to a same situation, making it difficult for autistic people to generalise experiences.
If any one would like to have my papers? Feel free to contact me.
Acually, my latest papers are no longer about computer use, but about looking for and nurturing abilities in autistic people rather than fighting disabilities...I believe that there are tremendous potentials to be developped in autistic people, even through caracteristics that are usually considered negatively by many carers...This was the subject of my latest paper presented in Oslo at the occasion of Autism Europe 8th international Congress in 2007.
Autism and Creativity: A Different view of Autism
Competences and Potentials alongside Disabilities
Most publications on autism emphasise the disabling and handicapping aspects of autism or the medical and psychological basis and consequences of autism. But not all characteristics of autism have negative impacts on the lives of individuals who have autism. Some peculiarities of autism can indeed prove to have positive effects, provided that they are identified as such and nurtured through an educational program and used to broaden the scope of interests of these individuals.
Among those positive aspects of autism one should here distinguish exceptional talents on the one side and on the other side, otherwise well known autistic functioning which can in some cases have positive effects on the expression of special abilities. These should be used as leverage for the development of social skills, without which the less positive characteristics of autistic behaviour will hide all the positive aspects benefits.
I will analyse exceptional talents in drawing, painting, music, languages or calculation and mathematics found among individuals with autism. We will analyse how some of the characteristics usually seen as negative in autism, such as social abilities deficits, “theory of mind impairment”, lack of central coherence, repetitive behaviours and echolalia may also be seen more positively. We will then see how all these aspects could be used as leverage for educational strategies and for developing quality of life. Finally, we will develop some of the possibilities to use these “positive” aspects of autism even when there are no apparent exceptional talents.
This paper is available on my website:
http://www.autisme-prehistoire.com/ on the "Autism page"
Feel free to contact e about this paper too.
@logical_atheist: you think that you don,t need friends and not having them is better for survival then you are the worst survivalist i now because with a friends who have strong social bond with you they can help you when you are hurt or in a bad situation they can give you a job if you lose yours by recommending you and earlier when i said repercussions i meant that what if the kids who use this treatment may only be able to socialize with the robot but not humans.
But their on-camera aspiration is now under fire after a disgruntled former employee snagged the pitch and handed it out to students. KTVU says the document "described students and employees as thieves, prostitutes, 'ghetto' or foul-mouthed people.
As a parent of an autistic child and someone who is most likely on the spectrum himself, I must beg to differ regarding vaccines. It is my position that while vaccines do not necessarily cause autism, there are individuals who are genetically predisposed with a sensitivity to a certain vaccine which in my opinion exacerbates an existing condition. In my son's case it was the acellular pertussis vaccine. 3 days after having that vaccine he spiked a 103 degree fever and after that he lost what little language that he had aquired.
I am not by any means saying that vaccines are a cause of autism but rather in cases where autism is already recognized, that caution should be exercised when considering vaccines taking into account whether the child has had a previous mild reaction to a vaccine. it is possible that the second time could have a worse reaction.
Logical Atheist, please put you thoughts together into one comment. It's annoying when there's three comments in a row all by the same guy mkay?
logical atheist said "i don't see the social difficulty as a bad thing. it lets me focus on the things that actually matter, like putting food on the table, paying bills and getting work done. socializing is a distraction from important thing necessary to survival.(food, money, etc."
i also have apergers and i have to say i do regret the social difficulty thingas it is a verry useful tool for survivla it enables u to atract aid from others in ways that ordinary folk will respond possitively
i wish theyd had his when i was younger i probaly woud have had an easier time surving in this crazy world
Interesting idea im glad that it is effective thought in a way it kind of leaves an uneasy feeling in my stomach to think that we are resorting to use robots to engage socially withdrawn children. seems the same solution could be provided by a well trained therapist.
What about the idea that vaccinations are causing autism at an early age?
Please consider the following: while an Autistic person is being measured and categorized it is also possible that if there were such a thing as a spectrograph of of personality traits and that most people would not have a continuous or even flowing chart.
If such a chart existed it would be possible to see that chart undulate with the weather, age of the observed, health, and in the presence of other people.
While everyone has a position on the bell curve everyone's place is not fixed. Your position on the standardized curve will move with time. Your skill set will change, involuntarily.
To claim superiority over someone who has "obvious" handicaps is to ignore talents which may exceed your own.
Everyone has a right to be respected regardless of their "shortcomings".
Excellent comments, good & contributive debate. Thank you all. I am diverging a bit from robotics & autism to brinup a point towards fundamental cause of Autism.
I would like to present few different scenario wherein I have personally seen manifestation of Autism:
Couple of decades ago, I was living in the U.S.
One of my classmates was deputed with family there from India. Their normally active child of 15 to 18 months at that time developed SEIZURE over night. I was baffled at first as child had healthy parents; & in fact I was baffled for years to come as both parents did not have any known history of seizure in the family. This child-seizure was eventually diagnosed with Autism around mid-90s and it also became clear as child grew.
In October 2008, the same parents called me for a restaurant dinner & drink with the Autistic child of 15. To put it mildly, the mother expressed that she is pondering what to do if something happens to father.
In November 2009-February 2010, I hear from another good & common friend of us that the father is having severe seizures. I knew father close enough & I can ouch he had no health problems whatsoever. Father died few months ago of a seizure related & extended problem.
(a) What I see in this case which I have keenly followed is that Genes that were suppressed did express in father quite late - actually somewhere around late 40s or very early 50s.
(b) While father may or may not have environmental factors in play, I find that child's Genes may have gone from Suppression mode to Expression mode due to environmental factors.
i) Is Autism due suppressed gene expressioning itself? If so, which is that unexpressed seizure gene?
ii) Does environment contribute to early expression as in the case of this child? If so, what factors?
It is here I suspect couple of possibilities:
a) Exposure of fetus to minute quantities of CarboMonoxide - via automobile, oven & baking gadgets,etc.
b) Any identifiable caustic conditions in tightly enclosed apartments prevalent in the U.S. like carpet materials, etc.
Looks like genetic pre-disposition & environmental conditions are at play here with suppressed genes possibly expressing itself given the conditions earlier in child's lifetime. This is because at father's time, in India, we had very few automobiles & no apartments whatsoever. It is in the U.S. that he this changed.
I am just expressing what I have seen first hand. While speculating, I hope to bring this to light so that together community can narrow down to few or exact cause.
Would any Kind Aspergers Adults be willing to give me some advice as a mother of a 9 year old boy with AS? He isn't able to talk much and you all seem so expressive. Thanks!
(p.s. ADHD has just been linked to pesticides. Maybe Austism will be soon, too. Eat Organic!)