There are children with autism who have never smiled at their mother, but have smiled when interacting with a robot. Why is this the case? And can robots help to find a way of bringing autistic children out of their shell? This is but one of the questions at the heart of human-robot interaction studies. Hideki Kozima and his team at Japan’s National Institute of Communications Technology created the famous Keepon (a small yellow robot) and Infanoid in an effort to study interpersonal communication and human social development. Their work attempts to expand on that done by Cynthia Breazeal and her team at MIT.
Infanoid, initially developed in 2001, is a highly interactive humanoid upper-torso robot which is roughly the same size as a 3-4 year old child. It has a simplified face with eyebrows and lips that are capable of expressing emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and so on. Using 2 CCD cameras for eyes, it can smoothly track an object of interest, make eye contact with a child using face detection, and display joint attention when the child wishes to show it an object by estimating the child’s gaze. It has 29 actuators in total and several sensors throughout its body, including microphones for ears. Infanoid can mimic the vocal sounds it picks up by extracting phonemes from the human voices it hears and playing them back.
Presented with the robot over the course of about 30 minutes or until they got tired or bored, children would often go through different phases of interaction. At first, they wouldn’t interact with the robot at all. Next, the child would attempt to show the robot their hands, toys, or poke the robot to see how it would react. Finally, the child would begin really interacting with the robot – if Infanoid pointed to a toy, the child would hand it to the robot – as if the child recognized the robot as an autonomous, thinking agent.
Robots like Infanoid, Bandit, and Simon could have a profound effect in a variety of fields including artificial intelligence, computer science, cognitive science, psychology, social sciences, robotics, engineering and human-computer interaction. Infanoid has gone through at least 5 prototypes and is now commercialized by International Vital Device Co., Ltd..