Robot-assisted therapy for autism often works something like this: A human therapist shows a child photos or flash cards of different faces meant to represent different emotions, to teach them how to recognize expressions of fear, sadness, or joy. The therapist then programs the robot to show these same emotions to the child, and observes the child as she or he engages with the robot. The child’s behavior provides valuable feedback that the robot and therapist need to go forward with the lesson.
The researchers used SoftBank Robotics NAO humanoid robots in this study. Almost 2 feet tall and resembling an armored superhero or a droid, NAO conveys different emotions by changing the color of its eyes, the motion of its limbs, and the tone of its voice.
The 35 children with autism who participated in this study, 17 from Japan and 18 from Serbia, ranged in age from 3 to 13. They reacted in various ways to the robots during their 35-minute sessions, from looking bored and sleepy in some cases to jumping around the room with excitement, clapping their hands, and laughing or touching the robot.