Lauren Klein, PhD, at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has long been interested in tackling healthcare problems.
In pursuit of this mission, she works on a research team consisting of Beth Smith, PT, DPT, PhD, an assistant research professor in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy; Klein’s PhD advisor, Maja Matarić, PhD, Chan Soon-Shiong chair and Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics, and Interim Vice President of Research at USC; and Fei Sha, PhD, associate professor of computer science and biological sciences and Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering.
Last fall, the team won an award in the “CS for Social Good” white paper competition sponsored by the Computing Community Consortium and Schmidt Futures. Their paper, “A Computational Approach to Earlier Detection and Intervention for Infants with Developmental Disabilities,” received a $7,500 grant to support future research.
Now they are researching ways that robots could make a difference in the lives of children with developmental disorders. Their work aims to help earlier diagnose children with conditions ranging from learning disabilities to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Earlier diagnoses, experts say, allow for earlier interventions and better outcomes.
In their paper, Klein, Smith, Matarić and Sha propose using a robot toy to interact with an infant to encourage certain behaviors. These behaviors are known as exploratory motor movements — important infant behaviors such as reaching, touching, grasping and kicking that help them learn to control their bodies and interact with their surroundings. Exploratory movements are believed to be important for healthy cognitive, motor and social development.
“Based on this, we can look for infants who make decreased exploratory movements and design and evaluate interactions that could increase these movements,” Klein said. “These interactions are aimed toward children at risk for developmental disabilities, though we anticipate it may be supportive for typically developing infants as well due to the importance of early exploratory motor movements.”
The team’s past research placed an infant in a chair across from a humanoid Nao robot, which interacted with infants by responding to movement. Whenever the infant kicked their leg, the Nao robot would also kick one of its legs. Twelve infants between the ages of 6 and 8 months participated in this first study, which has been published in a paper titled “Socially Assistive Infant-Robot Interaction: Using Robots to Encourage Infant Leg-Motion.”
The study observed that once babies made the connection between their own movement and the movement of the robot, they increased their kicking. Babies at risk for developmental disorders, such as ADHD or ASD, may perform differently in this paradigm. They may demonstrate difficulty learning the connection between their movement and the robot response, supporting its use in early detection. Alternatively, they might respond very well to the robot, supporting its use as an early intervention tool.
The team’s white paper outlined how they plan to build upon their current work with the Nao robots and pursue future research, one possible avenue being by exploring the use of Sphero robots in encouraging infant motor movement.
In past studies, the team used the Nao robot platform as an effective socially assistive robot to both provide contingent rewards and allow researchers to evaluate whether infants would imitate the robot, but they had some limitations. Nao robots cost thousands of dollars, while Sphero robots are much more affordable, at about $150 per robot. Additionally, Nao robots can only move in certain directions, which limits the range of motion that can be encouraged, while Sphero robots can safely roll around the baby, encouraging a wider range of motion while simultaneously engaging the infant’s attention more effectively.
Their paper outlines their plan to record interactions between the infants and the robots on video, use software to characterize the movements of the infants’ limbs and head, and sort these movements to classify if the infants are at risk for a developmental disability.
Their white paper also proposes analyzing infant-caregiver interaction during play, as social interactions between babies and their caregivers are essential to child development. This work is currently ongoing.
“The potential to have a positive impact during infancy and to lay the foundations for a positive developmental trajectory are very exciting to us,” Smith said. “We very much appreciate that the award will help us to move its development forward.”
— Lila Jones