This Robot Helps People With Autism And Dementia

by Eithne Dodd

Meet Pepper. Four-foot tall, with large eyes and a tablet in its chest, Pepper is a humanoid robot.

Pepper can speak, show pictures and video through its tablet, and run for 12 hours on battery power before needing to be recharged. Because Pepper is a social robot, it can read and interpret facial expressions, allowing communication with humans.

“We’re using Pepper for a range of interactions related to education,” says Sharon Houlden, Director of Adult Services and Housing for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, which bought a Pepper unit last year. Pepper regularly goes to technology events and business conferences, and is used to encourage children to study science.

Pepper is also used in the social care field at Southend-on-Sea. “He hosts reminiscence sessions where older people, some of whom have dementia, will look at videos and listen to music that he plays on his screen,” says Houlden.

Pepper can ask questions as well

“In the style of a quiz, Pepper can say ‘What was that music?’, ‘What was that bar of chocolate we used to eat?’, etc. He is like a master of ceremonies in a local home where we run a dementia style quiz programme.”

Pepper and other social robots are also being used to encourage communication among people with autism and Asperger’s. Carl Clement, Founding Director of Social Robotics, uses Pepper’s older brother NAO in his work with autistic children.

“Autistic people tend to be drawn to technology and they’re far more comfortable communicating about technology. What we’ve found is that the robot has enabled us to build up their confidence and teach them communication techniques that they can then transfer and use with people directly,” he says.

Clement uses social robots to teach children communication skills in a range of ways, including games and storytelling. Clement gets the robot to tell a story, but only while the child is maintaining eye contact with it; when eye contact breaks, the story stops.

Pepper the Robot Picture Eithne Dodd 4 copy
Pepper helps people with dementia and autism practice and develop their communication skills through games and storytelling

In Southend-on-Sea, Houlden has used Pepper in a similar way to Clement. Pepper was brought to a creative writing group for young people with autism and Asperger’s.

“The young people come together to write but are unable to use each other to critique their work because they are not comfortable speaking to each other about their work,” says Houlden.

“With Pepper in the room, he acts as a conduit for communication. People are much happier to speak to the robot rather than each other, or to people they haven’t met before. In that way Pepper facilitates communication rather than stops  it,” Houlden added.

Houlden also says that older people often treat Pepper as if it were a person: “Pepper comes in, they engage with him as a person not as a machine.” She also said that not a single older person showed a fear or distrust of the robot.

Do they think Pepper is human?

It’s hard to know whether or not these people believe that Pepper is human or are simply happy to interact with Pepper as though it were. Phillip Graves of GWS Robotics says: “It is worth remembering that artificial intelligence is designed to give the illusion of true intelligence.

“If programmed by a thoughtful human with a thorough repertoire of answers in response to all manner of possible questions, an artificially intelligent device accessed blind through a digital interface could deliver a fairly convincing illusion of being intelligent.”

In most social situations there are lots of cues which allow us to distinguish artificial intelligence from organic intelligence: “movements, facial expression, patterns of eye contact, variations in tone and amplitude of voice and energy or vibrations that we may register at a subconscious level, and that allows us to understand a lot about the other person,” says Graves.

What is Pepper’s gender?

Pepper’s personal pronouns vary depending on who is talking about him or her. Pepper has a flat upper body, suggesting a male but hips that jut out from its waist, suggesting a woman. Clement uses the pronouns she/her to describe Pepper, while Houlden from Southend on Sea uses he/his.

Graves refers to Pepper as an ‘it’. “Ultimately, Pepper is a machine, and therefore a dispassionate scientist would probably prefer ‘it’,” he says. “The men in our office used to commonly refer to Pepper as ‘he’ and ‘him’,” he says, adding however that the twitter followers of GWS Robotics mostly insist that Pepper is a girl.

If Pepper doesn’t know the answer to a question, it will say that it doesn’t know. “One of the typical questions he gets asked is ‘are you a boy or a girl?’” says Houlden, “to which it replies, ‘at the end of the day I’m just a robot.”

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