A new robot, called Darwin-OP2, comes with the amazing capability of helping autistic children communicate better and engage more efficiently with the society at large. Chung Hyuk Park, assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at the George Washington University, designed the robot.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a mental condition, is a neurobehavioral disorder that is present from early childhood and is characterized by impaired social interaction and difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people.

The purpose behind this initiative in correlation with autism is to enable robots to interact and help autistic children in communicating and socializing more effectively. Still in its initial phase, the robot project currently caters only to autistic children aged between 5 and 10 years. Eventually, the project hopes to include even three-year-olds.

In autism, signs and characteristics of the disorder vary from one child to another. However, one thing common across the spectrum is that autistic children typically avoid eye contact. This hinders their ability to interact and communicate with family members, friends, and other people in general.

However, it was found that autistic children were more comfortable reaching out to robots because their actions can be controlled and were predictable, in comparison with humans.

"Children with autism have trouble understanding and engaging other people's emotions, and with socially assistive robots, the child may be more readily engaged without being overwhelmed," said Laurie Dickstein-Fischer, an assistant professor at Massachusetts' Salem State University's School of Education, who is also doing clinical research on how to use robots to help children with autism.

In the current series of Park's experimentation, the researcher used three predominant types of robots - a mini robot, a medium robot, and a large robot such as the Darwin-OP2. While the first two types of robots are capable of displaying facial emotions and physical actions respectively, the third category of robots is capable of engaging with children in a more interactive way such as playing sports even.

The artificial intelligence (AI) used by the robots enables them to analyze the behavior of a child. The acquired data is then assimilated to find different and appropriate ways to interact and reach out to the children with autism.

Experts in the field have welcomed the design, stating that the repetitive task of teaching social skills to an autistic child is the perfect skill a robot can diligently take over. These robots can also assist parents, who do not have enough time in terms of providing intensive therapy to the child.

Sooner or later, Park hopes that the technology will be affordable enough to be leveraged by all families with autistic children.

Park also mentioned that the robots still have a long way to go, in terms of improving the AI and movement control. "Making them work, being more human like, is still our dream," said Park.

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