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By: Jennifer Bails
With rosy cheeks and short-clipped bangs framing her round face, the toddler looks like many other three-year-old girls. But even as a baby, she was clearly different. Her parents first grew concerned when she wouldn't make eye contact as an infant or smile when tickled. Months later, she still wasn't responding when they called her name or babbling like other babies. Just before her second birthday, her worried parents took her to see a medical specialist. After psychological evaluation, the doctor estimated their daughter's mental age at 10 months old. More testing yielded the much feared diagnosis for the little girl who researchers would come to know as M.
She was autistic.
Autism spectrum disorders affect one baby in every 110 born in the United States. Children like M have trouble communicating and coping with new situations. They have difficulty reading others' intentions or knowing their own feelings, often becoming locked inside their minds. Some children benefit from therapy and instruction in specialized schools, such as the one M attends after her diagnosis.
One morning at her school, M discovers a new toy among the puzzles, blocks, and dolls. The toy is actually a robot consisting of two squishy, yellow balls stacked on top of each other, representing a body and head, with a black button nose and googly eyes. It looks like the progeny of a snowman and a marshmallow Peep. The robot's name is Keepon-a combination of the Japanese word kee, meaning yellow, and pon, the sound this strangely adorable creature makes as it bobs up and down.
Keepon took quite a journey to reach M's classroom. About a decade ago, Hideki Kozima, a scientist at Miyagi University in Japan, had developed a sophisticated robot called Infanoid, which was intended for the study of social development in autistic children. Infanoid had a movable torso, arms with working hands, and a head with eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. It could respond to human faces and voices. Yet Infanoid proved to be too realistic for its own good. Children fixated on its individual parts and had difficulty treating Infanoid as any kind of social being.
So Kozima turned his approach inside-out. Rather than developing a robot that looks and behaves like a human, he sought to distill our social behavior to its essence. This minimalist design might, conversely, lead to a more socially engaging robot, he reasoned. The question was how best to do it.
A key part of the answer lay with Marek Michalowski.
Born in Poland, Michalowski became interested in computers and robotics while growing up in New York City, where his father ran a networking business. He went on to study computer science and psychology at Yale University, where he became fascinated with how to design robots with social intelligence. He then chose to pursue his PhD at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute because, he says, of its renown in the field. At the institute, he worked with computer science professor Reid Simmons on several social robots, including the robo-receptionist that greets visitors to Newell-Simon Hall. He also began reading about a phenomenon called rhythmic synchrony.
Many of our bodies' activities, from the firing of our neurons to our walking gaits, are rhythmic. It turns out that so, too, are some our social behaviors. Scientists have observed that the rhythms of our gestures are synchronized with the tempo of our speech, such as talking with our hands. Rhythms of speech and movement are also synchronized in subtle ways between two people communicating-think about how you nod, blink, or gesture during conversation.
Michalowski likens this rhythmic synchrony to a dance. Yet, even the most socially adept robots can't do this social tango, which could account for why robots aren't persuasively lifelike. He wondered whether he could design a robot capable of rhythmic synchrony with humans.
In July 2006, during the third year of his doctoral studies, he landed an internship in Kozima's lab, where the efforts to create a socially engaging robot were underway. Michalowski was impressed with the potential of the lab's prototype. It was capable of smooth, agile movements, which made Michalowski optimistic that the robot, named Keepon, had potential for rhythmic synchrony.(Continued …)