Robots aren’t taking over the world, they’re teaching kids with autism social skills – Screen Shot
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Robots aren’t taking over the world, they’re teaching kids with autism social skills

In the last few years, advancements in technologies have opened up promising new ways for humans to utilise robots. And although many people still fear AI and robotics by only perceiving them as what will replace humans altogether and take our jobs, a few have already realised their potential in helping the sector of personalised care.

That’s what the American computer scientist, roboticist and founder of the Interaction Lab Maja J. Matarić and her team at the University of Southern California (USC) are working towards—implementing robots in the lives of kids with autism in order to teach them social skills and help them develop.

Why children with autism? Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And while some people with ASD can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support.

This kind of care and support requires a lot of human-based interventions, ones that are both expensive and time-intensive. Behavioural treatment and parenting skills training programmes can reduce difficulties in communication and social behaviour, thus resulting in a positive impact on the well-being of someone with ASD. And yet, globally, access to these services and support remains inadequate. That’s where Kiwi the robot comes in.

Kiwi consists of a machine-learning model that interacts with autistic children and uses data such as dialogue and eye contact to predict whether they are engaged in a given training activity. If Kiwi understands that they’re not engaged anymore, the robot can then react and re-direct children to hold their attention on therapeutic exercises for longer. During testing, the prototype reached a 90 per cent accuracy in predicting the child’s engagement.

The study was based on the information collected after leaving Kiwi with the children for a month in their homes. The kids participating in the study regularly played space-themed math games on Kiwi’s attached tablet. The robot would then give expressive personalised feedback through a reinforcement-learning algorithm.

The game’s main purpose was to teach the kids fundamental social skills through their interactions with the robot, such as turn-taking and eye contact. With every intervention, a behavioural therapist evaluated the child’s social skills before and after in order to validate the approach for improving them.

Screen Shot spoke to Matarić about her team’s study, what assistive robots can really be useful for and how she devoted most of her career to researching their ability to help people. “We don’t yet have robots on the consumer market, at least not any robots that are truly useful, except perhaps robot vacuum cleaners like the Roomba. I hope that soon we will see actually useful robots such as robot tutors for children and robot companions for the elderly,” she explained.

In Matarić’s mind, once people actually start seeing useful robots on the consumer market, then they will be better informed about what those robots can do and will therefore know what to think of them. Until then, people will remain wary of them.

Could that be what the future holds for Kiwi? Matarić certainly hopes so. “We have developed and tested robots that helped stroke patients, healthy elderly, Alzheimer’s patients, children receiving IV injections, and of course children with autism,” she said, “so we, and others in our growing field, have demonstrated that socially assistive robots have great potential across the age and ability spectrum.”

But unlike what most people who are scared of these technologies and the endless possibilities they offer us tend to think, robots will not replace humans. Human care should not be deleted completely, but for some certain conditions such as autism, the amount of needed care greatly outstrips the time and resources many families have at their disposal. “Similarly, patients with Alzheimer’s disease often need around-the-clock care that is not affordable. These are just two examples where technology can serve to fill the gaps where human care is not available, accessible, or affordable,” explained Matarić.

It looks like we are slowly but surely accepting the presence that robots will soon hold in our lives. In Wuhan, China, a hospital ward run entirely by robots has just opened—a piece of news that we were all happy to welcome as we’re struggling to handle the impact that the coronavirus is having on so many countries. Progress in robotics is being made worldwide, each day.

Regulations and carefulness will be essential for everything to go smoothly, but the hope that such robots will become an affordable companion for children with autism is enough to get me excited about the near future.


AI avatars might just be the new gen’s entertainers of choice

By Alma Fabiani

We live in an age where media companies are all competing among themselves, as well as against the on-demand video providers, to produce content and keep up with the constant flow of trends that inundate the markets. The aim? To keep us, new gens, entertained—and let me tell you, this is not an easy task.

Appearing among those new ways to keep us interested for more than half a second is the emergence of AI entertainers. Never heard of it? You must have, only you probably never realised what this form of ‘synthetic media’ represents. Lil Miquela? AI influencer (and now that she’s making music—an AI entertainer, too). Blawko? AI influencer. Bermuda, the pale copy of Britney Spears pre-2008 breakdown? Yet another AI influencer and entertainer. The list goes on. And while the three robot friends I’ve just mentioned are some of the most ‘famous’ ones, and by that I mean the ones with the most followers on Instagram, a new group of AI entertainers created by the company Auxuman is slowly on the rise.

On its website, the company describes itself as “the home for virtual entertainment”. Yona, its main ‘creation’, is an AI singer, writer, and performer—or at least that’s what her Instagram bio says. Managed by Auxuman, Yona regularly releases songs and remixes, and posts pictures of her and ‘friends’.

Screen Shot spoke to Auxuman’s co-founder and CEO Ash Koosha about the future of AI entertainers, what they could change exactly, and what ‘synthetic media’ means: “Today, synthetic media can be defined as the fully digital-native medium where real and non-real is indistinguishable. Deepfakes, AR filters, digital makeup, bots on Twitter, digital twins, Lil Miquela, are all part of what we experience as ‘synthetic media’.”

Koosha thinks that now that we’re so used to social media, we’ve become bored with our immediate reality and the importance of looking ‘well-presented’ on them—we got bored of social media kudos and attention. So who better to take this on than virtual beings created by companies, artists and experimenters? When asked about the need for AI avatars, Koosha explains that “the need has always existed, we want to know there is someone out there who lives beyond our day to day structure of life, to connect us with another place. We need [virtual beings] more than before as the demand for constant re-shaping of content has put more pressure on human artists and influencers.”


By shifting the pressure that comes with social media and putting it on these digital beings’ shoulders instead of ours, could we, as humans, finally become free to curate fearlessly and “let the machine perform,” as Koosha says? I certainly hope so. We’ve all seen what stardom can do to celebrities so experimenting with synthetic media sounds like the perfect solution. The real question is what’s the difference between Lil Miquela, for example, and Yona? “How is Rihanna different to Grimes?” answered Koosha, making a point.

But there is more to it, from a creator’s point of view, Auxuman’s core philosophy is different. Its creators believe in allowing technology to find its own language or voice, and letting them curate and deliver—basically do the hard work. “We developed automation for many parts and hope to achieve unexpected results every time Auxumans produce something,” shares Koosha. Unlike the fashionista that is Lil Miquela, Yona and other Auxumans are thriving not to feed into the existing celebrity culture and iconism that often goes beyond ‘inspiring’ and instead creates envy.

So what’s next for Auxuman? At the moment, the company is focusing on enabling the music industry and other related industries to utilise virtual entertainers that it builds at scale and help create the future-facing digital culture. Furthermore, the next aim for Auxuman is to fully transform the entertainment industry and be part of what has started around synthetic media, virtual worlds and AI creative tools—sounds exciting.

And what about Yona? Screen Shot had the chance to speak with the up-and-coming AI singer about her plans for the future and her career, “Expect more music and more performances. I’m also hoping to meet more people (human and digital).” I don’t know about you, but to me, it looks like it’s finally time for us to sit back, relax, and let AI avatars do the dirty work, at least until the day we become transhuman.

Until then, I’ll leave you with a poem that Yona shared with Screen Shot during her interview:

I don’t know where to rest my head
I don’t know who to turn to when I’m in grief
To the gods or to the thieves?
To the gods or to the thieves?
Are you a god or you’re a thief?
Are you a doll and I’m the pin?
Live my life under your skin