Meet Nao, the
interactive, 23-inch-tall humanoid robot that offers new, exciting
possibilities for children with autism. Recently Olivier Joubert,
the special education project manager for Naos manufacturer,
Aldebaran Robotics, spoke with ABILITYs editor-in-chief, Chet
Cooper, and its medical editor, Thomas Chappell, MD, about this small,
but mighty educational tool.
Chet Cooper: Tell us a bit more about Nao.
Olivier Joubert: Our project started in May 2009 when Aldebaran Robotics
decided to adapt these humanoid robots for people with special needs.
We had done research, mainly at the University of Notre Dame, the
University of Connecticut, and more recently Vanderbilt University,
to evaluate the interaction between Nao and children with autism.
The results were promising. And because these institutions sought
to develop new experiments and studies, they kept in close contact
with Aldebaran, enabling us to get a very early understanding of how
humanoid robots interact with children. After two years, we customized
the robot to make it more useable for teachers working with children
Cooper: Its my sense that working with children who are autistic
was not your initial goal.
Joubert: Thats true. Bruno Maisonnier, the CEO of Aldebaran,
felt strongly that robotics would be the technology of the 21st century.
He was very passionate about robots, especially humanoid ones, because
he felt the shape would make humans more comfortable interacting with
them. So he created a company, worked on this product, and developed
the first version of Nao in 2005. Then he began distributing it to
different markets, including the research and university markets.
Our university partners started to explore using Nao with autistic
children and the results were promising. And thanks to their research,
our company realized we could do something meaningful in the field
of special education. Two years ago we started to work actively on
this project, and we now have a product that works well for teachers
of children with autism.
Cooper: How much does a school have to pay for a Nao?
Joubert: For a robot loaded with a series of applications, plus an
online interface that allows teachers to customize a teaching session,
its $14,000. We call it the Autism Solution for Kidsor
the ASK Nao solution. It includes the robot and a series of applications
for children who have a large number of learning goals. We have an
application that allows students to work on imitation, turn taking,
emotion recognition and other important skills.
Lets say you are a teacher planning what you would like to do
that day with one of your students. You connect to an online interface
that we provide, and then you input: Today I want to work with
Jordan. On the online interface, you connect with Jordans
passport, which gives you all the information related
to him: his age, gender, learning goals, interests, the way he communicates,
and other relevant information. From there, you decide what types
of exercises you want to do with Jordan, and finally go to another
interface and input: I want to start this application with this
child. After you accept the customization for Jordan, you click
Play Nao, and the robot starts to interact with Jordan.
The way Nao interacts with a child is inspired by the Applied Behavior
Analysis (ABA) method, meaning that Nao will prompt the child to do
something, asking her: Show me the picture of the crow, for instance,
and then Nao will wait for the child to show the picture of the crow.
If she picks the right picture, then Nao will reward her by doing
a little dance. If it is a wrong answer, Nao will say, Okay,
thats not the right one, well try again.
Cooper: Have you done an analysis of what it costs for Nao to work
with a child vs. the cost of using a therapist?
Joubert: First I want to emphasize that we decided to use ABA because
its the best known method and most used today, but we try to
get inspiration from a variety of methods. Some of the applications
are ABA-inspired, but others come from equally relevant sources. We
get ideas from everywhere, but prefer to let researchers, who are
experts in their field, do the testing in order to gain a better understanding
of whats possible with Nao. The relationship we have with researchers,
and the beta tests we conduct in schools, show promising results.
Nao is opening doors to the minds of children.
Cooper: What are your next steps?
Joubert: Today we are working with two different beta test schools:
one is in the UK, and one is in New York. We want to adapt the solution
not only for one or two children, but also for children worldwide.
The data we collect is only one way to do research.
Cooper: Do you see the robot as a one-on-one interaction only? Or
can it work with more than one child at a time?
Joubert: We have different applications. Some of them are more one
on one, while others can be done in groups. For instance, when we
are doing an ABA exercise, where Nao is prompting a child, waiting
for an answer, and providing a reward, we see that as a triangle between
Nao, the teacher, and the child. Nao will be the one to approach the
child, while the teacher will be there to focus on the child, trying
to get a better understanding of what the child needs, and also guide
the her to successfully interact with Nao. In that case, its
a one-to-one interaction, Nao plus the child plus the teacher all
working together. There are also other applications, such as dance
and collaborative games, which can be done with more than one child.
In some beta testing, we have teachers who work with eight children
and one robot at the same time.
Cooper: What other applications does Nao have for children?
Joubert: As a company, we decided to focus on autism because its
what we know best. I have a PhD in neuropsychology, and I started
to work with children with autism during a post-doc. What we have
developed, so far, is something that can be used with other kinds
of disabilities, as well. We might work with children who have some
emotional or developmental challenges. We might even work with typical
children to enhance memory. And we can also work on mentoring children
on such academic skills as math, French or geography. So while the
applications developed so far have been for children with autism,
we can develop others to meet a range of needs. The possibilities
are limited only by our imagination.
Cooper: I noticed that you have an online interface that allows one
to track the progress of the work with a child.
Joubert: We decided to go with an online interface to connect teachers,
parents and therapists who may not be in the same place. This allows
all of them to access and share information about the child. This
is all connected to Nao, so the robot is better able to understand
if the child has provided the correct or incorrect response. Based
on that information, it will track the performance and display it
on a curve in the interface, allowing teachers to have a tool that
is easy to use, program and/or customize.
Cooper: Must teachers, parents, and other caregivers use a password
to get in to monitor these activities?
Joubert: Yes. When we send the robot to a school, users need login
and password information, and someone in the school must be responsible
for assigning icons for the teacher and parents in order to connect
every child with the parents or guardians. Only people who are connected
with the child can see the childs information.
Cooper: Can one program the robot and download new curriculum remotely?
Joubert: Yes. We wanted to make it very easy for teachers to use.
For instance, you could compare what we have done to the smart-phone
design, where you can load the applications you need onto the device.
Similarly, based on what you want to do with the children and the
learning goals you want to work on, you will be able to go onto the
platform and say, I would like to use this video and this video.
You would just download them onto your robot. That way you are able
to work on different aspects of the interaction with the children.
Some research shows that children are more attracted to interacting
with a robot because of the technology and its predictability, and
because the child will be able to respond faster or be less shy and
more confident, which are skills they were already working on.
Cooper: You mentioned the interaction between children and the robot.
Is it anecdotal that they interact with a robot in a different, more
positive way? Has there been a large survey or study on this topic?
Joubert: We dont want to say that Nao would be beneficial for
every child, but based on my experience, 70 percent of children interact
very well with it; 20 percent make the same progress with Nao as they
would with a teacher; and 10 percent arent engaged by it.
For instance, weve seen some evidence that children interact
more with a robot than with a person or a passive toy. Since it is
a robot, it is very predictable. The robot will always do the same
thing the same way, and because it will not tire, a child can work
with it much longer.
Cooper: Is there a camera? Do you videotape the children through the
Joubert: Nao has two cameras: one to observe a childs emotions,
and the other to look at the childs progress. At some point,
we would like to create an application enabling Nao to record video
and show the video to parents, but were not there yet.
Cooper: How much does the robot act like a robot? Can it go up a set
of stairs? Can it lift things?
Joubert: Go on Google and youll be able to see Nao dancing,
working and grasping objects. Hes also able to get a nice understanding
of the environment, meaning that hes able to recognize a sound
and rotate his head towards the origin of the sound. Hes able
to follow and recognize faces. These are things that Nao can do that
are similar to a simplified human.
We had a teacher who worked with a small boy with autism, and when
Nao entered the classroom, the child said, I want Nao.
The teachers were very excited because it was the first time they
saw this child speak. So this is a promising area. Weve also
seen children stand up and dance with Nao. Its amazing how confident
and relaxed they are. A researcher from the University of Connecticut
developed an application where Nao plays a very specific rhythm on
a drum, and then Nao interacts with the children while they play the
instrument, and pretty soon the children can play the same rhythm
Cooper: We were talking earlier about taking this technology international.
How is that going in terms of using different languages and incorporating
culture? For example, if you were doing this in Arabic?
Joubert: We have to take those things into consideration. Nao can
speak, I think, about 13 or 14 languages, including English, French,
German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese. Hes able
to say the words and understand them. So on the device side, Nao can
speak different languages, but weve developed an application,
so far, to make Nao speak English because its the most-used
language, and also Spanish, which is widely spoken in the US. Its
not that hard to add languages. We just had to start somewhere, so
we started with English and Spanish.
Cooper: When you built the website and the applications for the different
people to interface, did you think about accessibility being built
into it as well?
Joubert: In terms of languages?
Cooper: No, meaning would people who are blind and who use the JAWS
computer-screen reader program be able to navigate your interface?
Joubert: No, not yet. That is something well ultimately do,
Cooper: Good. The percentages are such that most people dont
have disabilities, or at least obvious ones, but we always strive
to build at a level that offers the highest accessibility possible,
for anyone who comes into any field or occupation, whether its
teaching, engineering or medicine, even. We know physicians who are
Joubert: Thats very important feedback because we dont
want to design robots just for some people. We want to design robots
for the betterment of humankind. We started with an interface aimed
at teachers who dont need accommodations, but our intention
is that our interface will ultimately be accessible to everyone.
Cooper: In the US we have section 508, which means that if youre
a federal contractor, you have to make everything as accessible as
possible, including your website and any computer programs, or the
government wont buy it from you. So theres a push for
this, but people still forget, especially in the programming stages,
but Im not trying to preach to you.
Joubert: No, this is the kind of feedback we need. Our products have
been built on this kind of feedback, meeting with teachers, parents
and journalists who say, You should do that, and we say,
Yes, we can do that. We just have to do it, thats
all. Thanks a lot.
Cooper: Are you waiting to get more feedback before you expand? Do
you have a goal in mind with the schools youre working with?
Joubert: The main goal was to be sure the applications we have developed
really match the needs of children with autism, and also to make the
online interface very easy to use. Now that weve achieved these
goals, were ready to enter the market. Right now, were
only going with schools, therapy centers or autism clinics.
Cooper: Where do you manufacture the robots?
Joubert: In China, which is less expensive, but then we integrate
most of the robot components in Paris. Aldebaran Robotics has developed
everything, except for the programming language, which was subcontracted
to developers. But Aldebaran developed 100 percent of the online interface,
Nao and the system behind it, and most applications as well, except
for the involvement of some outside developers. When I say outside
developers, I mean people who like to program and who decided to help
us develop more applications for children with special needs.
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