At Queensmill school in London, the pupils are getting used to a new classmate who occasionally drops in.
Zeno is a robot that can make distinct facial expressions and, in experiments at the school with a child psychologist, the robot encourages the children to copy him.
For many children on the autistic spectrum, this isn’t so easy. Many of them can understand facial expressions, but can’t always make their own to communicate how they feel.
Zeno could help those children learn how to make facial expressions that other people can understand.
“Robots in therapeutic settings might be particular beneficial for autistic children because they potentially make them more comfortable in these settings,” says Prof Elizabeth Pellicano from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. “And if we get children who are more comfortable and less anxious they might be more ready to learn.”
Queensmill headmaster Freddie Adu says robots often bring out deep interest in his pupils. “No two days are the same with autism," he says.
"Where there are often children who don’t communicate and they see all people as the same, sometimes with a robot we have seen some startling things where suddenly asking questions or responding to a stimulus they know is not another human being but it draws them out of their normal way of communicating and the results have been quite fascinating.”
We’re used to seeing robots automating and assisting our modern lives. With Zeno, scientists are looking at ways to go beyond that, to develop robots and software that learn about individuals and can find ways to help them.
At Imperial College London, computer engineers are building an artificial intelligence into Zeno, to turn the robot into a companion for children on the autistic spectrum.
“The main reason we want to use robots is that autistic kids are keen and happy to work with robots. They understand robots very well because robots are programmed and they are always consistent and they will show the same things each time,” says Prof Maja Pantic, who works how machines can understand non-verbal behaviour in humans.
For children on the autistic spectrum, even very slightly different versions of the same facial expression can be difficult to interpret, says Prof Pantic.
“They see the expression as a set of separate parts of the face and each one moves separately. For them, even if there is a slight difference in one eyebrow, they would see it as a completely different expression. This is very confusing.”
Zeno will not only learn a child’s own facial expressions, the robot will eventually teach the children how to make their own.
In early experiments in Serbia, Prof Pantic has had some encouraging results with a child who was non-verbal, meaning that he can talk but he usually doesn’t do it. “He went home after one session with Zeno and said to his mother, 'and tomorrow in school, the robot'.
"That was incredible because the kid didn’t speak for a year or more and exactly on that day he was so excited about the robot and playing with the robot that he actually spoke,” says Prof Pantic.
“This is great. Even if these kinds of effects we can achieve, this is great and the kids are opening and this is what we want. Usually they don’t understand what’s going on around them, our faces for them are a big enigma. They are closed and in their own world. Bringing them out is a great achievement.”
The research team are collecting initial data and want to start a clinical trial with Zeno in a few years’ time, to properly test how useful the robot could be.
If Zeno works, though, this robot could become a remarkable gateway to thoughts and emotions that children on the autistic spectrum have never been able to express before.