Researchers at University of Louisville Believe Robotics, A.I. can Help Children with Autism
When it comes to therapeutic treatments for autism, robots and virtual reality might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly how two researchers at the University of Louisville are helping students with autism learn. The researchers, Drs. Mohammed Nasser Saadatzi and Karla Conn Welch, have conducted a study using NAO, an artificially intelligent robot designed to play the role of a supportive classmate in a mock classroom setting.
In the study, NAO would be placed next to a student with autism, while a teacher on a video screen, through virtual reality, would teach them words. According to Saadatzi, the study involved three students with autism between six and eight years old, who visited the lab two to three times a week for four months.
Welch and Saadatzi said NAO’s presence in the room had a positive impact on the children, helping them learn more quickly.
“We are using this capacity of technology to develop some intelligent tutoring systems that can make an engaging learning experience and increase their attention and motivation,” Saadatzi said. He believes the children learn more successfully in an environment where they feel comfortable and relaxed, and that NAO contributes to that environment as a warm, encouraging presence.
“[The robots] can celebrate success of the student, celebrate correct answers and they can be a friendly companion for these students,” he said. He added that the research also helped students practice social skills like turn-taking, joint attention, and listening to someone else speak. Welch believes there is “great potential in using robots and other types of technologies to engage students with autism, to bring them out to create a comfortable learning environment so they learn more, process through those experiences. Maybe they're more comfortable in other environments that do involve more complex situations like a human peer, a whole classroom of peers, adult and children their age.” According to a report this month by Wave3.com, researchers at the University of Louisville have received a $1.2 million federal grant to continue their research for another four years on ways that robotics can help children with autism learn.