Robot-Assisted Communication Therapy
By Panrasee Ritthipravat and Zaw Htet Aung | If you occasionally feel isolated, stressed and frustrated due to difficulties in connecting with other people, it can be difficult to handle such situations. Those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have to go through these ordeals on a daily basis. Children with ASDs exhibit symptoms of differing severities and varieties that fall under broadly accepted categories that are defined in the contexts of social communication, social interaction and social imagination.
As curative measures are not available for ASDs, core autistic symptoms are targeted in a palliative manner with the goal of promoting independence and quality of life. This is not a trivial undertaking, however, as it demands a significant amount of time, energy and money – putting a heavy burden on families and healthcare services.
Autistic children lack the basic building blocks of verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Research indicates that nearly one third of them will never learn a spoken language, and the majority who do will experience difficulties. Also, their indifference towards social stimuli and inability to engage in joint attention activities create further obstacles in acquiring social communication and interaction skills.
The notion of employing robots as social assistants is not a farfetched, sci-fi dream anymore. In autism therapy, robots are the centerpiece of a variety of therapeutic settings such as diagnosis, promoting social interactions, behavior modification and enhancing play skills.
The simple and predictable nature of robots’ appearances and behaviors, combined with the natural tendency of children to treat robots as social entities, make them promising tools to tackle social skills impairment in autism.
AIM Global Innovation was born out of a variety of successful research projects from the Artificial Intelligence in Medicine Laboratory at Mahidol University in Thailand. Our team is composed of people with diverse skill sets working on research projects such as medical image analysis, therapeutic robotics, and motor and cognitive rehabilitation.
The therapeutic robotics project is our effort to push the envelope in current autism research. During the first iteration of our research, we developed three robots: Chang Phood, Chang Kui and Chang Tam.
Chang Tam was designed to encourage a child to imitate its gestures and movements, such as raising a hand. It can also imitate a child’s behavior, thus creating a natural reciprocal interaction without disregarding the social aspect of imitation.
Chang Phood and Chang Kui were developed to recognize English and Thai words that are difficult to pronounce and give appropriate responses to motivate the children to improve their language skills. We learned invaluable lessons from conducting numerous experiments with these robots in real-life scenarios.
On the technical side of things, achieving high speech recognition accuracies under noisy environments such as a classroom, and detecting gestures and movements of kids in various lighting conditions, were particularly challenging.
We also obtained constructive feedback from teachers, parents and therapists that allowed us to improve the hardware and software platforms.
There is a huge mismatch between the number of therapists and the population of autistic people. We are able to address the gap in contemporary autism research and provide a compelling option in the socially interactive robots market, which has a lot of opportunities for innovation.
Armed with several years of research experience and expertise, we set out to build a robot for communication therapy that is interactive, fully programmable and user-friendly. We also wanted to develop an always connected platform of caregivers, therapists, and their related communities, where they can share their ideas on how to give the best possible treatment.
Finally, we were able to bring to life AIM Robot, whose purpose is to provide better care for the children, lower the burden on parents and teachers, and help to bridge the gap between demand and supply.
At AIM Global Innovation, we believe that uniting cutting-edge technologies with expert domain knowledge will lead to our ultimate goal of providing better care to every autistic child worldwide.
About The Authors
Panrasee Ritthipravat is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Mahidol University in Thailand, as well as Co-founder and CEO of AIM Innovation. Zaw Htet Aung is also a Co-founder, as well as senior programmer and AI/robotics expert. The award-winning AIM Robot project has been supported by Thai research agencies, and there are three patents filed in Thailand. AIM plans to expand to the US in 2020, and is in search of funding, customers, mentors, and business partners.
www.mahidol.ac.th | www.aiminno.com