A robot capable of facial expressions has been designed by a former Disney imageneer

Robot helps diagnose autism in infants

A humanoid robot called Zeno could help improve diagnoses of autism in very young children using nonverbal communication.

The robot, fitted with a Microsoft Kinect sensor could be controlled remotely to speed up the diagnoses process and could be particularly useful in children who have not yet learned to speak and walk.

Conventional means of diagnosis of autism rely on analysing speech and social interaction, which means proper assessment can only be carried out in older children.

“The idea would be for the robot to instruct kids, give them some useful social skills and at the same time observe their reactions and calculate their reaction times. That calculation could form some kind of an autism scale,” said Dan Popa, a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington, who developed the robot together with former Disney imagineer David Hanson, his company Hanson Robot, Dallas Autism Treatment Centre and Texas Instruments and National Instruments.

Popa believes the robot can engage with the infants in a natural and non-threatening way and offer a wide range of therapeutical options.

“The first mode is called a scripted mode of interaction where you pre-programme a certain sequence of motions,” Popa explained. “For the second mode we have added a control system using National Instruments Single-Board RIO so we can have an operator or therapist control the robot by tele-operations. In this mode it mirrors the motions of the instructor. In the third mode we can also let the child take control of the robot directly using a Microsoft Kinect.”

Several teams around the world are currently developing humanoid robots for autism treatment and diagnoses. However, as the researchers say, to make a robot any useful, it has to be capable of a rather wide range of facial expressions and other means of non-verbal communication, to convey its emotions.

“Trying to interact socially with robots without faces is like talking to someone who is wearing a mask and sunglasses, you will always be missing social cues and never feel comfortable,” said Richard Margolin, director of engineering at Hanson RoboKind

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