Two stacked, yellow sponge spheres about the size of a tennis ball is helping therapists work with autistic children. The robot, named Keepon, via a therapist commands, imitates the rhythm of the child?s movements, drawing the child?s attention.

"Getting through" to these children has been a long standing challenge for parents, teachers, and therapists. The use of robots may be an inroad to understanding and communicating with these autistic kids. Marek Michalowski, combined his BA in psychology and MS in computer science from Yale, with a recent PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. In collaboration with Hideki Kozima, a scientist working in Japan on cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and robotics, Michalowski formed a company, BeatBots, using Keepon to work with autistic children.

Michalowski with Keepon and monitoring computer
Michalowski with Keepon and monitoring computer

Children with autism have extreme difficulty interacting with others. Communication skills that most people unconsciously exhibit and understand, are lost on a child suffering from autism. Ques, such as facial expression or body posture, have no meaning to them. Conversational humor is missed, since words are taken literally. An autistic child has repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, or stimming, a term therapists use to identify constantly waving the hand up/down at the wrist.

Michalowski?s research which revolves around the importance of rhythmic synchrony in social interaction, began with following the gaze patterns in children who did and did not have autism ? in other words, where were they looking, and at what.

People attribute Keepon?s movements as "dancing." Michalowski looked at dance as a way of developing technology to synchronize the robot with human rhythms. He believes that "this has applications in autism work given the effectiveness of dance and movement in establishing nonverbal engagement with these kids."

Keepon?s eyes are actually cameras with a 120 degree field of view. His nose is a mike that picks up the sounds around him. This information is used by the therapist at a computer to see and hear from a distance what the child is doing: their gaze, their emotional expressions, rhythmic movements, and vocalizations. Then the therapist, controlling Keepon, has the robot respond appropriately. Keepon?s tilting and bouncing is seen as emotion. Kinda like a dog who tilts his head and asks ?Huh??.

Data can be transmitted using USB or Bluetooth to the therapist controller, who in turn instructs the robot from a distance. Intelligent control by the therapist is necessary. "No AI [artificial intelligence] can recognize subtle behaviors that we want to reinforce in kids with autism," Dr. Michalowski says.

Trying to attract the attention and focus of the child is accomplished by having Keepon turn and nod. His range is, respectively, 180 degrees and 40 degrees. He expresses emotion by rocking side-to-side a maximum of 25 degrees and bobbing up and down 15mm. Touching is encouraged simply by his cuteness and soft spongy body.

Keepon was featured on the History Channel. You can see him perform and see how his insides work in a video. BeatBots is offering Keepon Pro, a comprehensive robotic platform consisting of hardware, software, and service, to professional institutional users.

Brian Scassellati, a computer science professor whom Michalowski worked with at Yale, uses Keepon to study when and why humans identify with object motion. Interestingly enough, Scassellati also works with Pleo, a robotic dinosaur who responds directly to touch autonomously.

Be it robots, or toys, they fascinate, entertain, and now help researchers find a solution to the troubling question of autism.