A humanoid robot called Kaspar has been designed to engage specifically with children with autism, helping them to interact and communicate with adults and other children. Matthew Stock reports.
Kaspar the robot is helping break down the social barriers faced by many autistic children. The child-sized humanoid can talk, comb its hair, imitate eating, play the tambourine and sing with the children. Its face was designed to be simple, with easy to read expressions. SOUNDBITE (English) KERSTIN DAUTENHAHN, PROFESSOR OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AT UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE, SAYING: "Sometimes adults, they just look at KASPAR and say, 'well, it's not really cute it is?' and they say 'why don't you make it look nicer, more sleek, maybe like a cartoon character'. And we say, no - we wanted to have a robot that's suitable for children with autism. That means it has realistic, human-like features but very much simplified." SOUNDBITE (English) DR. BEN ROBINS, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE, SAYING: "Already they're confused with too much information because of their condition anyway. We need to simplify everything, but it needs to be predictable and accurate. And the predictability of it for the child's standpoint is one of the reasons they feel safe." Touch sensors help children to learn safe social interaction. If a child is too rough (UPSOT), Kaspar responds accordingly. (UPSOT) Kaspar has worked with about 170 children over ten years of development. SOUNDBITE (English) DR. BEN ROBINS, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW AT UNIVERSITY OF HERTFORDSHIRE, SAYING: "It's very important for us to see what's happened outside the context of the robot, otherwise we're just developing a nice toy - but that's not the point." At TRACKS, a specialist centre for children with autism, Kaspar has had a big impact. This includes helping a boy previously unable to eat with his classmates. SOUNDBITE (English) ALICE LYNCH, DEPUTY PRINCIPAL AT TRACKS AUTISM, SAYING: "And then we started doing it with KASPAR and he really, really enjoyed feeding KASPAR, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. And now he's started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers. So things like that that we've seen are just a massive progression." Kaspar is remote controlled -- a teacher or therapist is always involved. So far they've built 28 Kaspar prototypes, and are seeking investment to get the robot into every school, home or clinic that needs one. Britain's NHS and National Institute for Health Research is conducting a controlled clinical trial with Kaspar and 40 children; scheduled to run until November next year.