NYT article: How Robots Can Assist Students With Disabilities

March 29, 2022

New tools use artificial intelligence to assist students with autism and dyslexia and address accessibility for those who are blind or deaf.

Imagine: Robots that help teach social skills to children with autism. Translation software that provides deaf students with a more fluid and interactive experience. Data analysis to determine effective methods to identify those with dyslexia.

These tools, which all incorporate artificial intelligence, aim to find better ways to detect, teach and assist those with learning disabilities. Some are already in classrooms; others are still in the research phase.

Social robots, which are made to interact with humans, can help teach social and educational skills to students of all abilities, including those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hearing impairments, Down syndrome and autism.

Addressing the needs of children on the autism spectrum is particularly urgent because of their sheer numbers — one in 54 children are diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And those students tend to respond to robots “in a way that they don’t to puppets or pet therapies, or to many of the other kinds of things that we’ve tried,” said Brian Scassellati, a professor of computer science, cognitive science and mechanical engineering at Yale University.

That may be because robots seem humanlike but are nonjudgmental, he said. The robots come in a variety of designs, including a small boy, a classic sci-fi machine and a furry snowman, and they go by peppy names such as Kaspar, Nao and Zeno.

In a recent study by Professor Scassellati and his colleagues, an early prototype of a robot named Jibo — which looks like a small table lamp with a round head that swivels in all directions and a glowing white circle on a touch screen as its face — worked every day for 30 days with 12 children and their caregivers. Jibo modeled social-gaze behavior, such as making eye contact and sharing attention, and provided feedback and guidance during six interactive games played on screens.

“The robot’s job was to adjust the difficulty of the game based on the child’s performance,” Professor Scassellati said. But the idea isn’t that the robot replaces a teacher or caregiver. “We never want to encourage kids to just respond to the technology — that doesn’t do them any good,” he said. “We want to enable them to interact with people in a more substantial way.”

Research has found that the robots help improve educational and social skills, but far more studies are needed to discover how to make these changes stick and translate to the real world.

How does A.I. play into this? Technology has advanced, but so has research into how perceptions are formed, how people can infer each other’s feelings and thoughts and what constitutes emotional intelligence. These insights can be translated into algorithms that allow robots to interpret speech, gestures and complex verbal and nonverbal cues as well as learn from feedback.

Danielle Kovach, who teaches third-grade special education in Hopatcong, N.J., said she would be curious to see what further research shows. “So much of teaching social skills to students with autism is reading facial expressions, reading body languages and picking up on social cues of others. Is a robot able to mimic those things we learn from humans?” she said. Dr. Kovach is also the president of the Council for Exceptional Children, an organization of special-education professionals.

While the social robots are primarily used in research studies, there is a nascent marketplace aimed at classrooms and individuals. For example, LuxAI, a Luxembourg-based company, has been selling the friendly-looking QTRobot, designed for children with autism, to parents since early 2021; right now it operates only in English and French.

Children with autism interact with the robot daily for 10 minutes to an hour, depending on their age and level of support needed, Aida Nazari, a co-founder of LuxAI, said. The company has sold a few hundred QTRobots, primarily to families in the United States, she added. But many families may find that a social robot is far too expensive at this point: QTRobot costs $2,000 plus a $129 monthly software subscription, which includes support services.

Rachel Ricci was the first person in Canada to order a QTRobot, receiving it in February 2021. Her son, Caden, 10, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. Caden and his parents or therapist use tablets to play games aimed at enhancing his educational social skills, such as recognizing and naming emotions. QTRobot serves as an encouraging third friend and teacher.

He uses it for 30 minutes five days a week, and “QT helps him build his confidence,” Ms. Ricci said. Getting the robot during the pandemic was a lifesaver, she added: While most of his classmates at a Montreal school for those with autism regressed when school closed and therapists were unavailable, Caden stayed on track. Ms. Ricci credits QTRobot with that.

By Alina Tugend, New York Times, 3/29/22

This article is part of a limited series on how artificial intelligence has the potential to solve everyday problems.