Robot Aids in Therapy for Autistic Children
Wall Street Journal (05/01/13) Shirley S. Wang
University of Notre Dame researchers will present study findings at the annual conference of the International Society for Autism Research showing promise in the use of robots for teaching social skills to autistic children. The study, involving 19 autistic children, is believed to be the largest trial to date using robots in this way. The children interacted with a two-foot-tall robot therapist that was programmed to ask novel questions and engage children in conversation. The study participants showed greater conversational improvement with the robot than with a human therapist alone, and parents reported more significant improvement at home as well. Children interacted in six sessions with the robot as well as with a human therapist, who provided instruction on specific skills when interacting with the robot, such as making eye contact or taking turns talking. Simplified social interactions with a robot might be beneficial to children with autism, who tend to be very interested in technology but find complex social interactions challenging. The researchers hope the children will carry over the social skills to interactions with people as well, rather than just interacting with the robot.
Monday's ACM TechNews produced this very brief but tantalizing summary of a Wall Street Journal article.
This is one of those stories that leave me very ambivalent. In some ways, my automatic reaction to our collective desire to depend more on automation in direct patient care is fear. I am afraid we are going to abandon our elderly and otherwise hopelessly disabled kin to the unfeeling arms of robots, androids, whatever. This will spare us the feelings aroused by an out-of-control psychotic spouse, an incontinent and demented parent, or a profoundly developmentally disabled child, when we must intervene and our interventions are resisted, not appreciated, or insufficiently effective.
With this story, I see the situation is not so simple. Autistic children have difficulty relating to humans with whom they are intimately involved, and their difficulties are often reflected in others' responses to them. Machines are insensitive by nature, and can be programmed to reward positive behavior and ignore the negatives. This may be a situation, as the investigators assert, where robotic intervention is not only appropriate as an alternative but can even improve the patient's situation holistically.
I don't have a WSJ subscription so I can't follow the link ACM provides to the full story, and I don't have time at the moment to poke around on the Web for alternate sources of information about this research project. I would like to learn more, and will try to pursue this when I have more time.