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Oliver Morton

The Music of Science

When Kaspar the robot met some autistic children, between them they showed what it is to be human

Oliver Morton | May/June 2014

I’ve met a lot of robots in recent months. They ranged widely in shape and form, from the mechanical snake that slithered up my leg in a Pittsburgh basement to the Japanese humanoid who walked over to demonstrate her range of facial expressions (the angry one is pretty expressive; the happy one more disconcerting). The robot that moved me most, though, was Kaspar. 

Kaspar is not a sophisticated droid: he wouldn’t be much cop on a production line, vacuuming the floor or helping a bunch of soldiers check out a bomb, as some other robots can. He’s really just a big doll who moves his head and arms in response to controls from a nearby keypad. His body has a range of stereotyped actions; his face is immobile except for small movements in the mouth and eyes. If you are at all spooked by ventriloquists’ dummies, Kaspar could strike you as rather creepy. To many children with autism and related disorders, though, he has proved a source of joy and insight.

Children with autism find it hard to understand what other people are thinking, and see them as behaving in dauntingly and upsettingly complicated ways. A robot can be more comprehensible, which may be why some kids with this type of disorder are strongly drawn to them.

Ben Robins, who brings experience as both a computer scientist and a movement therapist to his work with Kaspar the robot, demonstrated this affinity a few years ago. A street performer went through a series of stereotyped motions in front of children with some level of autism, sometimes in normal clothes, sometimes dressed as a human statue in a featureless metallic body suit and matching face paint. Children who ignored him or got upset in the first set of circumstances were far more engaged in the second. Robins then took the pretty, doll-like robot he had been using to work with such children and gave it fewer features and plainer clothes. Again, the kids responded better. What may seem an eerie deficit to the neurotypical appears to be a welcome simplification to at least some of those on the spectrum.

Robins believes that some autistic children find it easier to understand what Kaspar “feels” because he always communicates the same way—wide-open arms when happy, cast-down head and folded arms when sad. There is an irony in the idea that people whose disability makes it hard for them to anthropomorphise other people, so to speak, can pull off the trick more easily with a robot.

Clinical trials are under way to measure the lasting impact of interaction with Kaspar, as animated by a teacher or carer. But Robins already has heartwarming anecdotes. One boy, who was often very withdrawn, precisely and delightedly copied the body language Kaspar uses to convey happiness and sadness. Weeks later at home, he looked at his mother and said “Mummy is happy”. This observation—unprecedented, unsolicited and accurate—made his mother even happier. At some level, it seemed, he had learned feelings from a robot.

Not just from a robot—Robins’ skill as an educator and oper­ator counted too. Intriguingly, when the children he works with discover that he controls Kaspar, rather than ruining the illusion, it often makes them even more interested. This struck me for two reasons. First, the robot is facilitating a social interaction between humans that one of them would normally find difficult—the experience of Kaspar-and-Ben is required for Ben to enter into the kids’ world.

The second reason is that these children are enjoying a truth that others might see as spoiling the fun. If people outside the field of robotics are confronted by an android, they tend to enjoy responding to it as a thing in itself. They underplay the painstaking effort of designing, programming and operating that is needed for even the simplest robotic tasks. Yet that expertise is what makes robots so amazing.

One way to read this is that creating a robot is like a magic trick—the mastery behind it is invisible, designed to deceive the viewer. But there’s a deeper meaning too. What’s at play here is the work of personhood.

Being a person sometimes seems like an effort, and when it does it feels like that effort is private and comes from within—hard graft ground out in the confining cell behind the eyes and between the ears. But that ignores the ceaseless work of personhood quietly done for us by others. We are human because we are treated as humans. It happens across all the years of our lives. We are made into people by the responses of those closest to us, by those who do no more than give way to us in the street, by people unknown to us alive and dead, who have helped to create or maintain the institutions and mechanisms that feed and shelter, employ, infuriate and please us.

Our humanity is the work of others. Perhaps, when an autistic child sees that Kaspar’s responsiveness is something that Ben and the child together are bringing into being, he sees a part of that truth—an idea that is hard for him to grasp in everyday life, and easy for others to ignore. It’s doubly satisfying that, when the truth is revealed in a robot, the reaction is delight.

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