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.