QTrobot holds the children's gazes for longer than humans.

ON THE SPECTRUM. A child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might have trouble communicating verbally, paying attention to others, or controlling their stress and anxiety. These difficulties can affect the child’s social life and their success in school.

Now, a team of researchers from robotics startup LuxAI have created QTrobot, a bot designed to help children with autism learn valuable social skills. They plan to present the results of a QTrobot study at RO-MAN 2018, a symposium on robot and human interactive communication, on August 28.

"CUTIE." QTrobot is just over two feet tall, with a humanoid body and a screen where a person's face would be. Not only can the bot see, hear, and talk, it can also communicate non-verbally, projecting facial expressions onto its screen and gesturing with its body.

For their QTrobot study, the LuxAI researchers enlisted 15 ASD-diagnosed children between the ages of 4 and 14. These children engaged in two interviews, each less than 5 minutes long, one with QTrobot and the other with a human.

During these sessions, the interviewer started by asking the child their name and three questions about themselves. Then, they told the child a short story and asked the child if they liked it. Finally, the interviewer asked the child to imitate them as they made four gestures (for example, lifting their right arm).

HUMAN VS. MACHINE. The researchers set out to answer two questions based on these interviews:

  • Did the children pay attention to and imitate the robot as well as they did the human?
  • Did the robot help decrease the children's repetitive or stereotyped behaviors, such as hand flapping?

To determine the answers, the researchers counted the number of times the child gazed at the interviewer, measuring the duration of each gaze. They also counted the number of times the child effectively imitated the interviewers' gestures and the number of times the child engaged in repetitive or stereotyped behaviors, as well as the number of repetitions.

They found that the children looked at the robot for longer overall and imitated it just as much as they did the human. The children also engaged in fewer repetitive or stereotyped behaviors when they were interacting with the bot.

JUST A NOVELTY? The researchers note in their paper that the results suggest that QTrobot could be useful in helping children with ASD develop social skills. However, there's also a chance that the short duration of the interviews had an impact on the results — the children might have lost interest in the bot over a longer period of time.

And the researchers aren't sure yet whether using the QT bot would be as beneficial to children with ASD as proven interventions such as social skills classes and cognitive behavioral therapy. They suggest the need for longer-term studies to really determine QTrobot's potential, but for now, it looks a robot could be an effective way to improve an ASD-diagnosed child's ability to interact with humans.

READ MORE: Therapy Robot Teaches Social Skills to Children With Autism [IEEE Spectrum]

More on autism: A Revolutionary Sensory Tool Is Transforming the Lives of Children With Autism

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