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If technology is able to improve our living conditions and get us to smile, all the better. This is what several groups of experts from around the world are discovering by using robots as a tool to improve social skills in children with autism. Their projects, along with others such as mobile apps, are giving hope to these children and their families.

Links between robots and children have been established previously in university research. In 2013, researchers at the National University of Singapore concluded that androids are perfect for child therapy because they are easier to interact with than another human being. They can be programmed to repeat tasks or specially adapted to the needs of each child. According to the study, the robot is able to take the role of someone friendly – something that humans struggle to interpret.

The University of Pisa in Italy showed the world that children do not reject contact with androids when a female robot won the affections of 20 autistic children who participated in an experiment to learn how to recognize emotions. A doctor, using a computer program, designs facial expressions that a robot should display and so the children can learn how sadness or happiness is reflected in different types of eyes or smiles.

According Daniele Mazei, one of the researchers, they chose a female figure “because child therapists tend to be women and because the relationship with the mother figure facilitates the child’s acceptance of the machine”. There are still many final details to polish as more facial expressions and facial movements become more dynamic, but the experience so far is already promising.

Another of the caregiving robots comes from Croatia. Rene was developed at the University of Zagreb and she is equipped with a microphone, speakers and camera. According to researchers at the center she is able to diagnose the child’s condition by analyzing data from the voice recording and visual data that measures eye contact.

The main intention is for the robot and the doctors to work on an assessment after a specific protocol has been designed, explained Maja Cepanec who coordinates the project. During the diagnostic process Rene produces simple and repetitive stimuli in order to keep the child captivated.

Producing cheaper robots in Seville

Spain is also betting on robotics to improve the conditions of these children. Bernardo Ronquillo, a Sevillian engineer, developed a prototype that was chosen by Finodex, a business accelerator with funding from the European Commission. The robot can play with the child with a natural voice, a touch screen and eyes with cameras.

If all goes well, the prototype will be ready by the end of the year, after it has gone through rigorous testing. The designers are emphasizing the price: “One of the aims is that this robot is affordable for families so that their cost is a tenth of similar robots on the market.”

Robots are also being used in conjunction with other technologies to treat young patients. There is an emotional story behind some them. This is the case of Autcraft, a video game that was inspired by Minecraft and created by the father of a child with autism so that he and others like him can make friends virtually. 

And we make the last stop on this trip at the city hosting the Mobile World Capital, Barcelona, where two apps have been launched that are working with parents and caregivers to improve the education of children: iSecuencias and AbaPlanet, which were created by Fundación Planeta Imaginario.

The first consists of exercises so that children learn the basics of language or work on their emotional development. The second app follows on the success of the first but is more advanced with more content, including: the shapes of objects, the vocabulary of clothes or food.  After gaming… has the era of the robot arrived?