The National Science Foundation has just given a $10 million Expeditions in Computing Award to a team of 17 experts in computer science, robotics, educational theory and developmental psychology from Yale, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Southern California. Over the next five years, the team is going to use its collective skills to develop bots that will help children with special needs physically, cognitively and emotionally.
The team plans to build bots that are customized to each child; bots that can actually learn and grow with them over the course of one year. The robots aren’t being designed to replace teachers or caregivers, but will be “helpers” that can give children any extra attention they need. The idea is that these bots could help children with anything from exercise and healthy eating to learning to read. Imagine if every child with special needs had a bot to help them each day!
“At the end of five years we’d like to have robots that can guide a child toward long-term educational goals, be customized for the particular needs of that child, and basically grow and develop with the child,” said Yale computer scientist and project leader Brian Scassellati. “We want the robot to be the equivalent of a good personal trainer.”
Having taught children with special needs, I have no doubt that an extra pair of hands, be they metal or plastic, could potentially be helpful in some circumstances. The danger is the possible dehumanisation of these kids if, over time, their robot “helpers” began to play too great a role. Kids with special needs need unlimited warm, nurturing human support, and anything that has the potential to reduce or diminish this in any way would need very careful consideration.
I think some of the greatest challenges will be in ensuring the bots are totally safe and in building up teachers’ and other caregivers’ trust in their safety. Many kids with special needs are totally vulnerable and dependent. There is absolutely no room for safety error.