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Can a robot teach imitative behavior?

Children with autism take part in a copycat pilot study overseen by USC Viterbi researchers

imitative behavior with Nao robot
Representation of the "copycat game" between a child and the Nao robot (Graphic/courtesy of USC Viterbi)

Practice makes perfect, it’s been said.

USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers have been putting that theory to the test for some time.

In this study, we used graded cueing to develop the social skill of imitation through the copycat game.

Jillian Greczek

On Aug. 27 in Scotland, a team shared results from a pilot study on the effects of using humanoid robots to help children with autism practice imitation behavior and eventually encourage autonomy.

Findings from the study were presented at the 23rd IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication conference in Edinburgh.

The study was led by Maja Matarić, USC Viterbi vice dean for research and holder of the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics, whose research focuses on how robotics can help people with various special needs, including Alzheimer’s patients and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

“There is a vast health care need that can be aided by intelligent machines capable of helping people of all ages to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises and to learn social behaviors,” Matarić said.

Learning new skills

For the study, the researchers examined how children with ASD react to humanoid robots that provide graded cueing, an occupational therapy technique that shapes behavior by providing increasingly specific cues, or prompts, to help a person learn new or lost skills.

Matarić and her team divided a group of 12 high-functioning children with ASD into two groups — one experimental and one control. Each child then played an imitation game (“copycat”) with a Nao robot that asked the child to imitate 25 different arm poses.

“In this study, we used graded cueing to develop the social skill of imitation through the copycat game,” said Jillian Greczek, who oversaw the study. “Our hope is that learning such skills could be generalized. So, if a child with autism is at recess with friends, and some kids are playing Red Light/Green Light, the child might look at the game and say, ‘Oh, I see how to play, and I can play with them, too.’ ”

When a child in either group imitated the pose correctly, the robot flashed its eyes green, nodded or said, “Good job!”

When a child in the control group failed to imitate the pose correctly, the robot repeated the command without variation. However, for the group of experimental participants, the Nao robot offered varied prompting when a child did not copy the pose accurately, at first providing only verbal cues and then following up with more detailed instructions and demonstrations of the pose.

Promising preliminary results

The study showed that children who received the varied prompting showed improved or maintained performance, while children who did not receive graded cueing regressed or stayed the same. These results suggest that varied feedback was more effective and less frustrating to the study participants than merely receiving the same prompt repeatedly when they did not imitate the pose correctly. It also demonstrated that a socially assistive robot can be effective at providing such feedback.

Although the study did not exercise the graded cueing model to its fullest, the preliminary results showed promise for the use of this technique to improve user autonomy through robot-mediated intervention.

Matarić hopes that, within a decade, children with ASD might have their own personal robots to assist them with therapy, coach them through interactions with others and encourage them to play with peers

“The idea is to eventually give every child a personalized robot dedicated to providing motivation and praise and nudges toward more integration,” she said.

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Can a robot teach imitative behavior?

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