According to the Autism Society of America, there are between 1 and 1.5 million people in the United States with an autism spectrum disorder, a disability which manifests in difficulties with social interaction and communication. The number of new diagnoses shows that autism is the most rapidly growing developmental disability. Scientists, doctors, teachers, and other specialists are constantly searching for new ways to assist children and adults with autism.
Scientists at the University of Southern California are developing a humanoid robot with hopes that children with autism will be able to improve their social skills through interaction with the mechanical innovation. The robot, which is named “Bandit,” was modeled after a person but maintains the machine-like appearance of a robot with the hopes that it will be more approachable for children with autism. The basic idea is that for many people with autism, interacting with another human is extremely difficult, but interacting with a robot may be easier because they are not as complex as humans are. Research is currently being done on the use of Bandit with children between the ages of five and nine. This demographic may find robots to be more familiar and less threatening than people during therapy sessions. While test interactions have only lasted about five minutes, the researchers feel that many of the children appeared to be more social after working with Bandit.
Bandit uses cameras in its eyes and infrared sensors to detect the location of the patient and is able to make hand gestures, facial expressions, and other rudimentary movements. Researchers hope that eventually such robots will be developed that can make complex decisions in order to better interact with the child and play games. For example, future robots will hopefully be able to detect the signs of anxiety that are typical behaviors associated with autism and be able to alter the way they respond to help the patient feel more at ease. Bandit cannot understand speech at this point, so a person watching from another room is in control of his actions when it needs to respond to something a child says. Researchers admit there is a great deal of work that needs to be done, but Maja Matari´c, who is a USC computer scientist hopes that in a decade these humanoids will be available at prices that typical families could afford.
The New Face of Autism Therapy, Gregory Mone, Popular Science