KASPAR is a limited child. He can smile, blink, and move his head and arms, and play his drum, but that's about all. Even he has friends though: autistic children love to play with him.
That's because KASPAR is a robot. But unlike real children he won't get bored, or fight, or take their toys away. Autistic kids cannot interact well with normal children.
Their repetitive - somewhat robot-like - behaviour repels other children at a vital development stage when they need to learn social skills. Autistic children often can learn some of these essential skills but they are much slower at doing so than normal children, and if they don't learn them, they fall into a downward spiral of isolating behaviour, making their condition worse, often for the rest of their lives.
Enter KASPAR. This stands for Kinesics And Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics.
KASPAR doesn't get bored. He can interact in simple ways. He crudely mimics human expressions. He can play his drum, over and over again.
Compared to the fictional robots we see on TV and films he is a bit of a dummy. Actually he is a dummy, a shop dummy, with a face adapted from a medical training child-resuscitation mask, running on model aircraft R/C servo motors. He also may be what autistic children need to develop their arrested cognitive and social skills.
Professor of Artificial Intelligence Kerstin Dautenhahn, a biologist and roboticist, of the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and leader of this project - KASPAR's mum, if you like - says, ''KASPAR is a robot developed to help autistic children learn to play in a socially acceptable way, and interact with other children, something they have great difficulty with.'' Professor Dautenhahn has been working on this for ten years, and has found it a fruitful field of study.
The KASPAR design group not only used academic studies to build their android, using low-cost off-the-shelf components, but also comics and Noh theatre masks - with their static, simplified emotional expressions - which help 'him' interact favourably with children. KASPAR is intentionally simple, battery or mains-powered, and reliable so that he can be taken into schools and therapeutic establishments outside the laboratory to interact with children in the real world without needing extensive technical support and large amounts of computing power to make him function, as some other more sophisticated robots do.
His job is to teach autistic children about imitating others, playing together, and taking turns - things normal children learn very easily and autistic children struggle with, and their frustration can become violent. His structure is remarkably robust: unlike a child, KASPAR can't be hurt. He is designed to give the children emotional rewards for appropriate behaviour. Feedback from teachers and carers have shown improvements in behaviour after autistic children have learnt skills from playing with him over a period of time.
KASPAR's latest improvement is ''tactile skin'' which has sensors embedded within it so he can react when children touch him, which they like to do. The designers are working on making him say, ''That tickles'' when his feet are tickled, or ''Ouch!'' if someone is too rough. Professor Dautenhahn says, ''I could continue working in this area for another ten years. We need to have a robot that is predictable and reliable, but also adaptive and with greater autonomy. We also are hoping to collaborate with in a clinical study so that we can have medical input into our programme along with our existing psychological and technological focus.''