For many years, there has been a range of research demonstrating that robots could be effective in helping children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) develop essential skills. They could be even more efficient than humans in interacting with these children. But in much of this research, very expensive robots were used. Richard Margolin, chief technology officer and co-founder of Dallas-based RoboKind, saw an opportunity.
“Expensive robots were used in these case studies, making it less practical for use in schools and homes of children with ASD,” said Margolin. “I wanted to create something practical to better the lives of these kids.”
Established in 2011, RoboKind has since created a range of novel robots to help children with autism develop essential skills, and it works with educators to develop and roll out the technology. The company worked with experts to create a curriculum “based on proven therapy methods that could develop social awareness in users with ASD,” he said.
After a few years, the robots4autism system and Milo, a facially expressive humanoid robot, were born.
After robots4autism began to take root in school districts around the country, Margolin started thinking about other applications for the robots. One particular gap was in the STEM education sector, where he said the ability of many teachers to instruct young children was “still hindered by a number of factors.”
As a result, the company started working on the robots4STEM program, with the goal of developing a robot that could assist educators in teaching kids to code, even if the teachers themselves didn’t have experience with coding and programming. Two facially expressive character robots, Jett and Robon, are used for this curriculum. In addition to being able to walk, each of these 2-feet-high robots features an expressive face and gesturing body.
“Jett is designed to engage the youngest students with knowledge of and an appreciation for coding, ultimately developing the skills needed to excel in the future workforce,” said Margolin. “Additionally, the robots can speak and are loaded with sensors across their bodies. RoboKind designed and built the robot mechanics, servos, computer systems and the material which allows for facial expressions.”
The robots4STEM program also teaches visual programming through a personalized avatar and Jett, the most advanced, facially expressive robot. Students program the avatar – which they can customize to look like them – to control Jett’s communication and movements. Jett will act accordingly with the correct code.
The system’s learning management software includes more than 36 hours of web-based learning that Margolin describes as “interactive, self-contained, and designed to be easily accessible to both the learner and facilitator.”
Students receive real-time feedback, reinforcing their level of understanding. As competency is demonstrated, students earn badges that signify their achievement.
Surviving a classroom of 6-year-olds
Each of the company’s robots are designed to work daily and survive in classrooms with children as young as six years old. They are designed with toy-grade safety and materials, but also function as full robots, prompting the company to consider “power, pinch points, and a number of other factors, all while maintaining a friendly feel,” Margolin said.
“Jett and Milo were built not to look flashy or techy, but to help people, and there were several challenges to get there,” he said. “For instance, everything took a lot longer and cost a lot more than expected. And it took some time to realize I couldn’t do everything myself – that I needed to find the right people to master certain areas, such as manufacturing or curriculum development.”
Based on his previous experience building humanoid robots with faces, Margolin said he raised some initial seed funding for the company’s first prototypes. As the team built the first prototypes and early software, the company was able to start testing to show the real potential of robots in autism centers and classrooms.
“With that evidence, we continued to raise funding to build out the robots, software, lesson system and autism content and put our designs into manufacturing,” said Margolin.
Proving its effectiveness
At the beginning of the process, Margolin said he worked with several educators before “finding the one that could develop a groundbreaking autism curriculum that robots could deliver.”
Early on, it wasn’t clear how to develop a program that was different to anything RoboKind had ever done, prompting the company to collaborate with researchers and clinicians to begin developing theories about lessons and testing them.
“Some of our early content experts fizzled out, but we found the really great experts who stayed with us,” said Margolin. “Everyone was surprised by how well students responded to the robots and many had hypotheses proven wrong about what would or would not be effective.”
Looking ahead, Margolin said RoboKind will continue to expand the lesson content it delivers and look for ways to improve education using technology of all kinds.
“The robotic technology we’ve created has application in spaces beyond special needs and education, in places like elder care and enterprise environments,” Margolin said. “Our next-generation robots will have new features based on things we have learned with our robots in classrooms. Facially expressive robots are well suited to any environment where natural interaction, speaking and performance is part of the requirement.”