When thinking about how to encourage pupils with autism to interact with their classmates, the notion of using a robot may seem like an idea borrowed from a science-fiction novel.
However, Kaspar (aka Kinesis and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics), is very much science fact, and already provides help in advancing autistic students' social interaction skills.
The "social robot", built in 2005 by Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, and her Adaptive Systems Research Group, has no eyebrows and its skin is abnormally smooth. As a result, children with autism understand its basic emotional settings because Kaspar is “minimally expressive”. This is an important design trait that helps autistic children decode the complexities of the human face.
Through a series of role-playing games, Professor Dautenhahn demonstrates how Kaspar helps autistic children interact with other classmates. She says she believes that this robot is “incredible”, that it can go one step further and enable all children, not just those with autism, to question “how they feel about the real world”.
To show the capabilities of Kaspar, Professor Dautenhahn presses on a keypad. After a moment she reaches down and tickles the robot, which responds by raising its arms and emitting a recorded giggle. Then she hits Kaspar's face; in response, it raises its hands, sinks to one side and utters a simple, yet compelling, “ouch”.
Speaking to TES at the Royal Institute’s ‘Women in Technology’ conference, Professor Dautenhahn says that robots allow children to understand complex subjects like mechanics, maths, engineering, physics and psychology because they are adaptable to any classroom environment.
“At the moment [in school] we are learning about human body parts and singing If You’re Happy and you Know It,” Professor Dautenhahn says.
“A robot can sing, move and point to its body parts. You had children in class who were too shy to sing or smile, but with the robot next to them they realised they could do it.”
Robotics is a highly interdisciplinary subject that demands skills like computer programming, logic and prediction. Encouraging these abilities from an early age could help equalise the gender and diversity gap in Stem – a gap that that Professor Dautenhahn is keen to close.
“Robotics goes beyond the gender issue,” she says. “We need people from different backgrounds – not just more girls, but more diversity. It is still very dominated by the typical stereotype of the engineer.”
Professor Dautenhahn believes that her study has evolved from helping autistic children into demonstrating how robotics can unlock potential in the classroom. Kaspar can be funded easily: it is made from materials you could find in a hardware store. Kerstin says her aim is now to reproduce it in schools across the county in order to benefit British students with autism and to inspire new generations to think about how to bring future Kaspars to life.