Could a robot help deaf children communicate in the near future?
Communication is necessary for children to develop speech and language. Engaging infants in daily conversation, such as reading, talking, singing and signing are great tools to use to help stimulate infant’s brains.
However, as most parents know, having the time to provide that kind of stimulating conversation with an infant isn’t easy. Add a child who is deaf or hard-of-hearing and the need for such interaction becomes even more important. “Parents play a critical role in a child’s language development. Studies have shown that children who are read to and spoken to a great deal during early childhood will have larger vocabularies, and better grammar than those who aren’t.” According to Colleen Davis Gardephe from Parent.com. But, what happens when parents can not provide the stimulation children need?
A Robot That Simulates Natural Interaction
Researchers at Gallaudet University partnered with Yale, the University of Southern California, and Italy’s University of D’Annunzio – to create an experimental robot. This robot simulates the natural interaction between baby and mother and father. The goal of this experiment was not to create a substitute for interpersonal communication between child and adult, but to provide a supplemental resource option.
“The goal of this experiment was not to create a substitute for interpersonal communication between child and adult, but to provide a supplemental resource option.”
According to Matt Simon from Wired.com, during the experiment, researchers combined robotics, algorithms and brain science. By doing this they are able to do what few humans have ever done before: use a robot to communicate using only facial cues.
“What’s interesting about developing infant minds is that natural language, no matter if it’s spoken or signed, stimulates the same areas of the brain,” says Matt Simon.
Both natural language and signing will appropriately stimulate the brain. In contrast, videos like “Baby Einstein” and will never be able to duplicate the needs of infants. But, what if there was technology out there that could help deaf children communicate?
How The Robot Works
The robot-avatar system works to interact with a child in a way that simulates the natural interaction that occurs between a baby and parents. This is different from videos like Baby Einstein or Sesame Street. Videos, no matter how educational, simply cannot provide the appropriate interaction that infants and children require.
The robot uses a thermal camera trained on the baby’s face to watch for tiny changes in temperature. The changes in temperature show a heightened awareness. Additionally, the robot has a face-tracking software used to direct the child’s view to the avatar. The research team tracks the brain of the child. This process confirms that the avatar is providing the same stimulation a child receives when engaging in natural language.
A mother of deaf children’s perspective
As a mother of three children, two of them having hearing loss, having supplemental resources is important.
“As a mother of three children, two of them having hearing loss, having supplemental resources is important.”
There are a number of fascinating concepts that this study pulled out for me as a parent. First, I appreciate that both hearing and deaf or hard of hearing children can use this tool. Having a tool to help teach all children sign language and language could be an invaluable tool.
Secondly, most children who are born deaf or hard-of-hearing are born to parents who are hearing. Time and practice need to happen for a parent and child to learn sign language. Even for children that choose to use hearing aids have periods of time before they get their aids. Also, children who will receive a cochlear implant have an open period of time before having surgery. The brain needs to be simulated early in childhood, making this robot helpful. I can see this tool providing a way to simulate the infant’s brains in those in-between times.
On the other hand, I fear resources like this robot would be used as a replacement for human interaction. I do not believe that even an avatar with the best technology could ever replace a live human being. Human touch, empathy, and spontaneous expression are parts of humanity that cannot be duplicated by a robot.
“Human touch, empathy, and spontaneous expression are parts of humanity that cannot be duplicated by a robot.”
In the end, pushing into areas that help deaf children simulate their brain through communication is valuable. Even the best parents cannot engage their child all of the time. Having an option to increase our children’s exposure to language is a resource I would love to learn more about. Additionally, more research needs to be done for long-term benefits. Having resources that reach beyond a tablet to provide children and parents with technology to help supplement their education and maximize their potential is valuable.
What do you think about the creation of this robot to help children with communicating from an early age? Let us know in the comments.