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Socially Assistive Robots/PEERbots Take Center Stage

A few weeks back (pre-COVID 19) Misty Robotics had the opportunity to host a workshop with Aubrey Shick, Head of Technology and Research at Fine Art Miracles, Inc. and a Misty customer. The workshop took place at our Boulder headquarters. The goal was to introduce non-technical audiences – specifically therapists, teachers, and parents – to the construct of using Socially Assistive Robots (SAR), or, as they are called in this use case, PEERbots. This application is particularly helpful in working with children with challenges, especially those who are on the autism spectrum. The workshop incorporated a socially assistive tablet application, an easy-to-use tool for guiding Misty II in educational and therapeutic sessions with children. The workshop was a large success, packing more people in than originally intended. Hats off to Aubrey for bringing this to life at Misty’s HQ. We had a chance to catch up with Aubrey to learn more about the important role robots like Misty can play in education and more.

What is your point of view on the use of robots in the SAR or PEERbot space?

Aubrey shared that socially assistive robots are often used to support individuals with personalized goals related to social skills, emotional regulation, communication, and activities of daily living. They support one as a peer instead of providing physical assistance, the latter of which is often associated with a robot’s primary value. This has been seen as a particularly valuable way for kids on the spectrum to understand and practice skills within a social context. With a robot, a child can be vulnerable; they can comfortably try, exert their own expertise, make mistakes, and learn at their own pace, without fear of judgment. Robots are always patient, and are able to provide empathy versus assert authority in their role.

Are SAR or PEERBots only useful with children?

I learned from Aubrey that while children were the focus of this workshop, the same PEERbot system is used regularly with other groups, including the elderly. Research — and now, industry — have demonstrated that robots can play an impactful role in helping with activities of daily living (for example medication reminders, diet coaching, and more). Aubrey feels that as AI gets more robust, these lifestyle management use cases may be particularly valuable for augmenting comprehensive care and supporting independent living. 

What specific uses of such robots are you excited about?

The list was long, but here are a few that Aubrey shared:

• Therapy and education for individuals on the autism spectrum
• Speech and language pathology
• Social skill modeling and training
• Emotional regulation and mindfulness
• Occupational/body and behavioral therapy
• Independence in daily living support
• Cognitive behavioral therapy 

How does the PEERbot app, which is used on a tablet computer, work?

Aubrey explained that the app takes advantage of a semi-autonomous environment with a robot – in the case of the workshop, Misty II. The tablet is set up to enable its operator (for example, a non-technical therapist) to control the mobility of the robot, her expressions, the color of the LED, and her utterances (what she says, and when). It offers a “palette” of engagement content to support specific lesson goals. Under the covers, the app is tracking intention relative to the goal being worked on, like practicing teamwork or learning politeness. While children, depending on age, may know there is a human behind the controls, they are much more inspired and motivated to answer and interact with the robot (sorry, humans!). As an example, if the robot asks “…why do we make eye contact…”, a child is eager to offer “…so people know we are listening…”. The paradigm of answering a robot peer who wants to learn how to be a good friend is often more inspiring than answering a teacher who clearly knows the answer. Children, even typically developing, are inclined to hold off disbelief and divert attention from the human facilitator for the opportunity to show off their skills and engage with their robot peers. While some may think this is due to a novelty effect, Aubrey has witnessed this relationship endure for years as children continue to engage in classes and therapy with PEERbots, maintaining a consistent peer dynamic to scaffold education and confidence.

What is the most magical moment you have seen between a child and a robot?

The story Aubrey told me was about a child who was considered non-verbal.  After only a couple sessions, the child started to speak when interacting with the robot in individual therapy. In fact, the child began using spontaneous language in greeting the robot later in class with other students. For the parents it was a very emotional event. What is very cool is that this has happened not with just one child, but has been seen many times for children with similar profiles. 

Aubrey’s work in the field of SAR over the last 9 years has engaged and helped thousands of children. She brings a wealth of experience in working with SAR/PEERBots in therapy and education. Her early background was in industrial design, and through this she gravitated to robots, with a keen interest in creating relationships and meaning through objects. In 2010, Aubrey was introduced to SAR as a discipline and focused on robots for those with special needs – autism and memory care. She is driven by the ability to help others through her work. Her dream is getting SAR therapy and daily living support covered by insurance, both in formal session use and in the home. 

If you’d like to contact Aubrey about her work, or if you would like to implement PEERbots with your students or clients, you can find her on Linkedin or www.AubreyShick.com

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