Social robot could help adults with autism find work

EDINBURGH - Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have built Alyx, a robot colleague that teaches autistic people to recognise social cues.

Alyx was designed to help adults with autism acquire this vital skill in the workplace.

Unemployment rates among autistic adults is high - only around 16 per cent are in full-time paid work.

Researchers in Scotland believe Alyx could help improve that statistic.

"The main issue is not that they can't do the work, it's the workplace politics, especially being able to understand what people really mean rather than simply what they say. And part of that is understanding emotional expression, so that's why robots like Alyx are going to help them," said Dr Thusha Rajendran, associate professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University.

During a session with Alyx, autistic adults complete a variety of clerical tasks, such as filing paper.

Alyx then generates either an approving or disapproving facial expression.

Learning to identify and process these facial expressions are critical to workplace interactions.

"Because ambiguity is the real problem for people with autism: How do I know when somebody's pleased with what I've done? We might understand it as the neuro-typical population, people with autism have difficulties," said Dr Rajendran.

A camera mounted in Alyx's head will also provide additional feedback to therapists.

"You can actually infer quite a lot from people's body position and their posture... We can use that information to help the robot understand what kind of emotional state the person is currently in, as well as taking in information from the face. So you get quite a rich picture of the user. And then by developing the robot's architecture not only does that information feed in, but the robot can then respond in a socially appropriate way," said Dr Peter McKenna, research associate at Heriot-Watt University.

The team plans to turn the Alyx prototype into a full-bodied, autonomous version, operating in a mock workplace, with clinical trials then planned.

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