BRISTOL — At the office of MOVIA Robotics, a white robot the size of a small kitchen appliance with perfectly spherical neon blue eyes and an upturned mouth guides me through a series of activities.
We start with a game — the robot, named Kebbi, which looks like it could have come out of the film Wall-E, directs me to tap the falling snowflakes on an iPad screen and “melt” them with my fingers. “Good job, Emilia!” said Kebbi.
Then we move to a lesson on numbers. I am to count by fives, dragging each little circle with the number — 5, 10, 15, 20 — to the center of the screen in the right order.
Kebbi is one of four robots the company has programmed to work with children with special education needs — and, in particular, children with autism. The robots are used in schools, group homes and therapists offices to help children with their social skills and encourage them through school lessons.
Tim Gifford, founder, president and chief scientist of the company, said that the company came out of his research into how human behavior and human interaction with the world can be used to inform the way that people program artificial intelligence.
Gifford said that his interest in using psychology to program the behavior of robots goes back to his time at Syracuse University, when he was a student in the computer science department with a minor in psychology. At UConn, he ran a robotics lab in the psychology department. Gifford said he began thinking about the use of robots in teaching neurodiverse children after speaking with his wife, a teacher.
“She was telling me about the large numbers of kids that were presenting with autism and how there wasn’t really a tool other than one-on-one interactions — and it’s just not possible, particularly in the public schools,” he said. “And so I thought if we can get this out of the lab and into the classroom, that could really make a difference.”
Gifford gathered researchers at UConn and began working on the idea in 2008 after receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health. He launched MoviaRobotics in 2010. He works with a team of software engineers and specialists in special education, and experts in early childhood, to develop the software. He said they studied learning techniques like Applied Behavior Analysis — a type of one-on-one therapy that helps autistic children with social skills — and embodied cognition, which examines the role of the body’s interactions with the world and how that contributes to thought processes.
Gifford said it was important that their robots constantly drew children in and made them want to engage.
“It’s really important that it not only works one time and the child enjoys it, but that it continues to be effective,” said Gifford.
In addition to academic help — Kebbi can guide students through lessons on counting, days of the week, colors and letters of the alphabet — it also teaches these social skills. For example, one lesson about staying focused on work presents children with a drawing of a student who is studying at a desk and another of a student holding a paper airplane. Kebbi asks the child to point out which student is staying focused and which isn’t.
The software also allows teachers to create individualized plans for each student based on their abilities, and collects data on each student and produces a report on how the student is performing. According to Gifford, children who have worked with the robots have improved their skills
Gifford said the robots are currently being used in more than 70 schools — including Bristol, Wallingford, Hartford, Middletown and Suffield public schools — as well as with families, in therapy offices and in organizations for people with intellectual disabilities.
In addition to pre-programmed lessons, Gifford said that a teacher or a therapist can also program the robot to say specific things or engage in a dialogue with a child. Gifford said the robot can also be used to guide a child through “de-escalation” techniques, like taking deep breaths and counting to ten.
“The therapist can actually use the robot to lead the child through different discussions and interactions in a dynamic way.”
Movia doesn’t build robots — the company buys them from manufacturers in China, Taiwan and Japan, and then programs them with their software. The important thing for the robots, Gifford said, is that they are sturdy enough to withstand being handled by a child at an affordable cost for parents or school districts. He said that they also prefer robots that have some human features, like faces and movable limbs.
Muniba Masood, the CEO of Movia, said that children tend to respond to the robot with tenderness and to form relationships with the robot quickly.
“They tend to be gentler. They tend to be kinder because of the physicality and because the robot can say their name and they know the robot by name,” she said. “A lot of times what we hear and see is, individuals with autism have difficulty with human interaction and eye contact. With the robot being so consistent and nonjudgmental and repetitive and almost calming in its tone and effect, that really lends itself to being a great intervention.”
The cost of a Kebbi with software is about $2,400 for the first year for a family, or $5,000 for an institution. After that, the cost drops to about $1,000 per year for a family. Gifford said that the company also provides an hour to an hour and a half of training for the teachers or the parents who will use it.
Gifford said the company is working on developing a Spanish-speaking version of the software, something they have received requests for. He said they also wanted to create more programs for older users and adults, along with lessons that have kids engage with more tools than just a tablet.
Masood said that the robot doesn’t replace a therapist or a teacher — it works in tandem with them, giving them more time to focus on assessing the child’s progress and cutting down the time a teacher would normally have to spend refocusing the child on task.
“We’re wanting to meet the individual where they are, and we know how technology-centric we are,” said Masood. “So this is a great example of using technology for good and using technology in a way that’s powerful and impactful improving lives.”