‘Zeno’ the robot breaks new ground in autism research

Scientists at Imperial College London have invented a cartoon-like robot to help educate autistic children on emotional understanding.

The autism robot, known as Zeno, is being tested to explore whether robots can provide a “consistent and fun way” for children with autism to learn about emotions.

Autism, a condition affecting around one in every 100 people in the UK, affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour, making everyday conversation an uncomfortable task.

But Professor Maja Pantic, the project’s lead researcher, thinks Zeno is the answer to emotional development.

“Autism affects people in different ways. However, many struggle with understanding and conveying emotions, often preferring to shut out what they don’t understand. It is important to help them to understand how people convey their emotions so that they don’t find human interactions so confusing and that is why we think our project is so important,” he said.

Zeno combines a range of audio, visual, facial recognition and artificial intelligence technologies to detect and decipher sound and visual cues from the children it is interacting with.

Professor Pantic said: “It is amazing to see our technology bringing Zeno to life for children with autism. They absolutely love the robot. Their faces really light up when they see it. For example, we’ve had feedback from a parent who said their non-verbal child of six spoke for the first time in excited anticipation about his next lesson with Zeno, which is amazing to hear.”

Children are able to play a variety of games with Zeno, some of which ask the child to describe what they see in a set of pictures, such as images of people being happy or angry.

The professor said the ultimate aim of the project is to roll off-the-shelf robots like Zeno into the mass market, to leave a long-lasting impact in research on autism.