Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics) is a robot originally conceived as part of a research project begun in the late 1990s by artificial intelligence researcher Kerstin Dautenhahn and her collaborators at the University of Reading in England. Initially, the objective was to develop "robotic therapy games" to facilitate communication with autistic children and to help them interact with others. In 2005, now at the University of Hertfordshire, the KASPAR Project was formally launched with the aim of developing a "social" robot having two missions: first, and mainly, to be a "social mediator" responsible for facilitating communication between autistic children and the people with whom they are in daily contact--other children (autistic or not), therapists, teachers, and parents--and also to serve as a therapeutic and learning tool designed to stimulate social development in these children. The objective was to teach young people with autism a variety of skills that most of us master, more or less fully, without any need of special education: understanding others' emotions and reacting appropriately, expressing our own feelings, playing in a group while letting everyone take turns, and imitating and cooperating with others.
If you think robots are heartless piles of plastic and silicon, you're correct. But soccer-playing humanoid robot Nao has been evolving by developing "emotions" under a European project and is now being used in the U.S. in sessions to treat autistic children. Under the recently concluded Feelix Growing project--aimed at designing bots that can detect and respond to human emotional cues--researchers at the University of Hertfordshire's Adaptive Systems Group and other centers have been trying to get Nao to simulate human emotions. Researcher Lola Canamero and colleagues have been programming Nao--created by Aldebaran Robotics and used worldwide as a research bot--based on how human and chimpanzee infants interact with others. Working with a budget of some $3.2 million, the researchers have been trying to create robots that can be better companions for people.