A Robot Designed To Help Kids With Autism Learn Social Cues

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

Blossom doesn’t look much like a robot. Of the two current prototypes Guy Hoffman and his team have made, one takes the shape of a bunny, with hand-carved wooden ears; the other looks like an octopus, with yarn tentacles that can curl up and down. They resemble rag dolls more than Roombas, and that’s entirely by design.

Hoffman, an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies human-robot interaction, partnered with Google to develop the robot to watch YouTube clips alongside children with autism. These children often have trouble understanding how to react emotionally to social situations. Using machine learning, Hoffman and the team at Google are working on designing ways for Blossom to act during different videos to help autistic kids learn key social cues.

The project is still in its infancy, and the team hasn’t shared many details. But the idea is a touchstone in Hoffman’s 14-year quest to build softer, gentler robots–ones we might even pass down to our children and grandchildren one day.

[Image: courtesy Guy Hoffman/Cornell]

Cuddly-looking robots are not unique. As robots become increasingly common in our offices, public spaces, and homes, designers have added everything from friendly faces to fur to make the devices more approachable. One of the most famous robots in Japan resembles an adorable stuffed animal. But the vast majority of robots are hard inside–open them up, and you’ll find rigid joints made of metal and plastic. Blossom’s guts are joined together using soft, compliant materials like rubber bands, silicon, and string. This gives the bot a more lifelike appearance and the “mechanics of a marionette,” Hoffman says. Instead of jerky, mechanized actions, Blossom’s movements resemble that of a creature, making it seem like it has the thoughts and emotions of a living thing.

Hoffman started the project by asking what kinds of objects we gravitate toward in our homes. Surprise, there are no screens involved. “In the end, we love warm, organic materials, things made of wood and natural materials like wool or fabric,” Hoffman says. “Why aren’t social robots also made from these materials?”

Eventually, Hoffman envisions Blossom moving beyond the purpose it’s being built for. He thinks it could become a general kit, where users build the central structure out of affordable materials, like cardboard, and then knit or crochet the bot into any shape. The idea? To create a technological heirloom, an object you gift to a friend or family member and then pass down to the next generation.

[Image: courtesy Guy Hoffman/Cornell]

Of course, we’ve come to see technology as expendable. People don’t want to use a five-year-old cell phone, let alone a device from their parents or grandparents. At the same time, we cherish our devices deeply–when was the last time you fell asleep without your cell phone by your side?–so we might as well give them sentimental value, too. “I can imagine people saving parts of the robots to reattach to a better technology, but using all the handcrafted parts and maintaining them,” Hoffman says. “We have appreciation for things that were crafted with patience. There’s additional cultural and emotional attachment that someone made it–and perhaps made it for you.”

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