Can robots help level the playing field for children with disabilities?
A new basketball-playing robot called MyJay is part of a vision for a future in which social robots are accessible to children in public schools and libraries.
A new basketball-playing robot called MyJay is part of a vision for a future in which social robots are accessible to children in public schools and libraries.By Beth Gallagher University Relations
A new robot named MyJay that lights up when it scores a basket is just part of Kerstin Dautenhahn’s vision to build robots that give all children the ability to play games regardless of their abilities.
“I really believe social robots can make a positive contribution to society,” says Dautenhahn, a professor in Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering and Canada 150 Chair in Intelligent Robotics.
“I see how children respond to robots. I see the smiles on their faces, the laughing and excitement. I know we are on the right track.
“I want to use robots so children can not only learn but also have fun and play with others in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
Children with very limited mobility, who can perhaps only move their fingers, can direct MyJay to pick up a ball and shoot a basket. Dautenhahn and her team in the Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Laboratory (SIRRL) — Hamza Mahdi, Shahed Saleh and Omar Shari — are particularly interested in having children with special needs play games with friends and siblings who don’t have disabilities.
“Physical play is so important for the social and cognitive development of children and also just to learn about themselves and enjoy time with friends,” Dautenhahn says. “We want to give all children the ability to play — not just computer games but play games in the real world.”
MyJay is part of Dautenhahn’s ambitious dream for a future in which social robots are available for all families who have children with physical disabilities or other special needs such as autism.
Social robots, that cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $10,000, are not accessible to most families but one day thousands of robots could be available in public schools and libraries that are staffed with technicians who can keep them tuned up. The schools and libraries could partner with local universities to bring ever more sophisticated robots to the general public.
“Social robots should not just be for the rich or privileged,” Dautenhahn says. “They should be for everyone.”
Recently, the Vancouver-based Learning Disabilities Society (LDS) partnered with SIRRL to study how assistive robot technology can be used by children with learning disabilities, neurodevelopmental challenges such as ADHD and speech language impairments.
The LDS is hoping to incorporate state-of-the-art assistive robotics to advance the children’s social skills and emotion control.
LDS executive director Rachel Forbes said collaboration with Waterloo’s social robotics research group “could be game-changing for our student community.”
Dautenhahn says she is looking for more partners, both industry and non-profit groups such as LDS, to accelerate research.
Dautenhahn is also researching how social robots can be used in long-term care homes for games among seniors and their grandchildren. “The idea is we design games that are enjoyable and benefit both the grandparent and the grandchild,” she says.
Like so many other research programs, Dautenhahn’s team’s intergenerational research project was paused in 2020 because of the global pandemic. But COVID-19 also inspired research that found resistance to social robots is easing as people either experience isolation themselves or see how it is affecting others during lockdowns.
The study, led by Moojan Ghafurian, a research professor of electrical and computer engineering in the SIRRL lab, found that openness to buying and using social robots increased significantly among those who have been both positively and negatively affected by the pandemic. Ghafurian, who collaborated on the research with Dautenhahn and Colin Ellard, a Waterloo professor of psychology, found participants who reported high levels of loneliness were more likely to say they would purchase a robot for companionship.
Dautenhahn said that while she has been passionate about social robotics for a long time, the pandemic has increased interest about how robots can be used as companions during times of crisis.