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Robots to help children to form relationships

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May 29, 2007

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May 30, 2007 The full extent of just what robots can do for humans is still unfolding, but with the Japanese robotics industry fully aware of the opportunities for caring for the world’s aging population, it’s fair to say that carer and companion robots will be one of the first commercial thrusts. Now a new project at the University of Hertfordshire (U.K.) is using robots to help children with developmental or cognitive impairments to interact more effectively.

Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, Dr. Ben Robins and Dr. Ester Ferrari at the University’s School of Computer Science are partners in the European Sixth Framework funded, EUR 3.22 million Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions (IROMEC) project which is investigating the use of robotic toys to enable children with disabilities to develop social skills.

Dr. Robins, the team member responsible for the work with robots and special needs children, has carried out extensive research into the types of robots which could help children with autism and other learning difficulties to interact most effectively.

He is now taking KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics), a robot developed at the University of Hertfordshire which resembles a little boy into schools in the Hertfordshire region to carry out a series of trials to assess progress.

“During our earlier work on the AuRoRA (Autonomous mobile Robot as a Remedial tool for Autistic children), we used very plain robots which were received well, and a more elaborate doll with few movement abilities that could encourage imitation and turn-taking behaviour during playful interactions. This previous research led to us using KASPAR, a child-sized humanoid robot, with minimum facial expressions, which can move its arms and legs and allows the child to interact with it,” said Dr. Robins.

Over the next three years, IROMEC will investigate how robotic toys can become social mediators encouraging children with disabilities to discover a range of play skills, from solitary to social and cooperative play and provide opportunities for other children and carers/teachers or parents to “join” in.

“The idea is that the robot will be a mediator for human contact,” said Dr. Robins. ‘We are seeing already that through interacting with the robot, children who would not normally mix are becoming interested in getting involved with other children and humans in general and we believe that this work could pave the way for having robots in the classroom and in homes to facilitate this interaction.”

IROMEC brings together eight multidisciplinary European partners from pedagogy, psychology, ICT and robotics. The other partners are Stitchting Wetenschappelitk Onderzoek Revalidatievraagstukken, Netherlands, Universita Della Valle D’Aosta, Italy, Risoluta Tecnologia Con Espiritu SLL, Spain, Asociacon de Investigacion De La Industria del Juguete, Conexas Y Afines, Spain, Universita Degli Studi Di Siena, Italy and Robosoft SA, France.

This research is a continuation of the University of Hertfordshire’s work on developing robots as social companions led by Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn.

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About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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