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Welcome to the (Robot) Social Print E-mail
In The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams ironically referred to a robot built by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "Your plastic pal that's fun to be with." But at the University of Hertfordshire, plans are underway to develop something along the same lines.

The robots created as part of the Interactive Robotic social Mediators as Companions (IROMEC) project wouldn't be playmates, exactly, but more like aides for kids with developmental delays like autism and Asperger's syndrome.
kaspar.jpg 
One of the fundamental problems that people with either condition have is difficulty "reading" the facial and body-language cues that neurotypical people pick up on unconsciously to communicate with each other, which makes social interaction extremely difficult. Basing their work on previous AuRoRA (Autonomous mobile Robot as a Remedial tool for Autistic children) and KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics, pictured) robots, IROMEC's plan is to spend the next three years examining how robot toys can help kids on the autism spectrum learn how to interact with other kids. AuRoRA robots used movements to encourage imitation and stimulate turn-taking behavior (something of a challenge for kids on the spectrum), while KASPAR's addition of some facial expressions promoted interaction. The new toys will be more ambitious, functioning as mediators between children and encouraging interaction.

An aspect of this that I find interesting is that while we've historically thought of robots as things that can replace us (in, say, manufacturing, cleaning, or bomb disposal) these robots are explicitly designed as helpmeets -- for instance, IROMEC's robots can be used by therapists and parents to provide an entry point for their own participation in exercises and games with autistic children.
 
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