The Queensmill School has a new student and children in the school are getting used to their new classmate, who occasionally drops in.
Welcome Zeno, a robot capable of making facial expressions along with encouraging children to imitate him.
Although it isn’t easy for autistic children, many of them are comfortable with facial expressions. This can be helpful in many ways, since autistic children can sometimes have trouble with communicating their thoughts.
Zeno is designed in such a way as to help these children learn how to make facial expressions that can be used to communicate with other people.
“Robots in therapeutic settings might be particularly beneficial for autistic children because they can potentially make them more comfortable in these settings,” says Prof. Elizabeth Pellicano from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. “And if we get children who are more comfortable and less anxious, they might be more ready to learn.”
Freddie Adu, Headmaster of Queensmill, notes the interest the robot generates among young school kids, adding “No two days are the same with autism.”
Many of these children have difficulty with communication and see everyone the same, all the time. However, with the help of a robot, this has improved, though the children gradually understand that they are not speaking or interacting with a human, even though it assists them with normal communication.
In today’s modern world, we are used to seeing automation and robots assist us in our day-to-day lives. However, unlike other robots, Zeno is designed for a different purpose. It is designed to help researchers and scientists alike to learn more about individuals and devise ways to assist them.
Artificial intelligence is being loaded into Zeno at Imperial College in London in order to turn it into autistic children’s friendly counterpart.
Prof. Maja Pantic, who dedicates a lot of time to understanding the relationship between autism and machines, says “The main reason we want to use robots is that autistic kids are keen and happy to work with robots. They understand robots very well because robots are programmed and are always consistent; they will show the same things each time.”
Prof. Pantic helps us understand the difficulties autistic children face in their day-to-day lives and says that autistic children have difficulty understanding different facial expressions.
“They see the expression as a set of separate parts of the face and each one moves separately. For them, even if there is a slight difference in one eyebrow, they would see it as a completely different expression. This is very confusing.”
Zeno, with the help of its artificial intelligence, will learn from the behaviour of children as well as teach them the different facial expressions.
Prof. Pantic has seen positive results in a nonverbal child during the initial phase of the experiment that was carried out in Serbia, and gives us an idea of the background of the child. “He went home after one session with Zeno and said to his mother, ‘and tomorrow in school, the robot.’”
“That was incredible, because the kid had not spoken for a year or more and exactly on that day he was so excited about the robot and playing with the robot that he actually spoke,” says Prof. Pantic.
“This kind of positive effect is great for the kids and those around them, as our faces present a big enigma for them. The children are closed and in their own world. Bringing them out is a great achievement.”
Zeno could become a household name in a few years if the research team has anything to say about it. They have started to collect the initial data and plan to provide clinical research to create a detailed awareness about the usefulness of the robot.
With Zeno, it is possible to create a remarkable gateway to a plethora of thoughts and emotions that children on the spectrum have been unable to express in the past.