Who is KASPAR?
KASPAR may not be a ghost, but he sure is friendly. Who is KASPAR you may ask? He is none other than Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics; a robot conceived initially by artificial intelligence researcher Kerstin Dautenhahn and her collaborators in England during the 1990s. Now you know why he goes by KASPAR!
Some 15 years later, the KASPAR Project was formally launched. There were two goals for KASPAR. The first was for the robot to function as a “social mediator” facilitating communication between autistic children and the people with whom they are in daily contact—other children (autistic or not), therapists, teachers, and parents.
KASPAR’s second mission was to become as a learning and therapeutic tool that would assist autistic children to develop various social skills that most children master fairly automatically such as understanding others’ emotions and reacting appropriately, expressing feelings, and cooperating when playing with others.
The challenge was to create a robotic partner whose presence is immediately reassuring because its behavior can be both anticipated and understood with ease.
Currently, KASPAR is a robot about the size of a three years old child. Deliberately, he doesn’t appear particularly realistic. The face of the humanoid robot is a silicon mask that is skin-colored lacking any details that would preclude the child’s capacity to determine age, gender, or even emotional intensity.
This lack of definition allows the child’s imagination to work uninhibited, so that the child can see KASPAR as a friend – or at the very least as “someone” – with whom he can feel comfortable.
Do Children Like KASPAR?
Autistic children invariably take to KASPAR from the get-go. The robot’s operator can move KASPAR’s entire upper body including its torso, arms, and head in addition to being able to open and close its mouth and eyes and display minimal emotional expressiveness, making KASPAR uncomplicated and easy to interpret.
Research has suggested that KASPAR’s expressive minimalism provides autistic children with a sufficiently predictable, safe and reassuring social context that gives them comfort thereby encouraging them to play with others and try new things.
For example, when a child incorrectly correctly judges how much force to exert when touching KASPAR, the game continues uninterrupted, without the child is feeling rejected. Instead, KASPAR says, “Ouch! That hurts!”—without getting angry and ejecting the child from the game, as so often will happen with other children.
What Is KASPAR’S Secret
KASPAR’s effectiveness with autistic children stems from the fact that the robot provides the child with a relaxed atmosphere in which, unlike the social situations she is accustomed to, she is protected from the uncomfortable and often stressful consequences that result from her many errors of interpretation.
The robot is never critical or dismissive when the child is inappropriate. Instead, the child will be gently corrected by KASPAR while simultaneously receiving reassurance from the robot. KASPAR’s responses are both clear and predictable. The result? The autistic child is encouraged to persevere in learning social skills.
But with all that KASPAR has to offer, there are those who oppose the robot.
Any Downside To KASPAR?
The first objection is that social robots are often thought of as a way of delegating a caregiver’s obligations to impersonal machines. However, it must be understood that robotic interaction partners such as KASPAR are not meant to replace humans, but rather to support them in providing treatment.
The second objection to KASPAR is that robots are typically accused of having false emotions, pretending to have feelings like those of humans without an authentic internal experience. While this is true, interactions with empathic robots should be seen as more similar to the ones we have with pets or that a child has with a stuffed toy animal, where the child’s emotions are of course real.