This is Bandit, a robot specially designed by a team at the University of Southern California to interact with autistic children in a non-threatening manner. It can speak, change facial expressions, move around, play games, and make decisions on what to do next. In preliminary experiments with 15 autistic children, interactions with the robot for as little as five minutes can cause the child to become more vocal and sociable.
That may seem surprising, since robots are hardly known for warmth and sociability. Yet there is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. “They find unlawful situations toxic,” he says. “They can’t cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects.”