A relaxing morning at Norfeldt Elementary School in West Hartford, Connecticut. An instructor named Chris is practicing Tai-chi movements with a student on the autism spectrum. They practice for awhile longer and celebrate with high-fives when the session is over. The child’s mother is grateful for Chris because of the social and academic advancement her child has achieved under Chris’ guidance. The surprising fact – Chris is a robot!
This robotic therapist was programmed by Timothy Gifford, the president and chief technical officer of Movia Robotics in Bristol, Connecticut. In 2008, Gifford began to investigate the educational benefits of robots at the University of Connecticut. He became involved in programming robots to work with children with autism when his wife, a teacher, spoke about the surge of children who were diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Gifford began examining the interactions between robots and children with special needs. He told the Hartford Courant, “Children with autism actually interact with robots like they are social entities…Adults can be very off-putting for children with autism. The robots are very consistent and very simple, so children are able to interact with them more easily.” Children are also really fascinated by robots which keep a neutral facade.
The National Institutes of Health gave $1.4 million in two grants which funded the research of programming robots and testing to observe how well they perform. A decade later, Movia Robotics went into marketing mode and licensed its patented software to three of Connecticut’s school systems-Bristol, Suffield, and Wallingford and to three manufacturers that produce robots to schools nationwide and in Canada. The U.S. Department of Defense fulfilled its bid of a $3.4 million contract to provide services to military families with children who are on the autism spectrum. Gifford also mentioned that Movia Robotics was in negotiations with larger retail chains to offer their software on the robots to them.
Tamara Kelly, a psychologist of the Wallingford School System, excitedly raved about the performance of the androids after observing a forty-five-minute presentation of a robot with Movia Robotics software. Kelly told the Hartford Courant, “It was really fantastic, I was really impressed with the way our students engaged with I-Pal…The children, who have difficulty interacting with adults or their peers, were completely engaged with the robot.” The robots would tremendously help the students as Kelly told Hartford Courant, “I definitely see this as being an extension of what we do to help students gain academic and social skills.”
The prices for robots vastly range; Movia Robotics charges $3,050 a year for its software. A robot like I-Pal costs $2,500, but a higher-end model could cost $10,000. RobotLAB Inc., located in California, is licensed to sell the software program market robots to around eight thousand schools nationwide. Gifford has plans to offer investors a chance to back the company. The software has been focused on students with special needs, but Gifford plans to expand to other fields. As he told Hartford Courant,
“The system is ultimately about people and robots working together…So it could be used for first responders, for robots going into a building after a disaster, or it could be used for elder care; you could put a robot into the home and it could do cognitive game and monitoring.”
Gifford also aspires to offer the robot with the Movia Robotics software to parents for home use. This could be another fantastic method to support children with special needs and change the way we offer help.