3D-printed robot could even help deaf and hearing children learn their first language.

Step aside, Furby. This experimental robot’s language skills are way
cooler and way more useful. In a few years, it could even help deaf and
hearing children learn their first language.
The device, called
the Robot Avatar Thermal-Enhanced prototype (or, more commonly, RAVE)
could someday hang above an infant’s crib, detect when they’re ready to
learn, and then begin to communicate with them. It’s based off a 3D-printed robot,
an algorithm based on neural and thermal scans, and a computer screen
with an avatar that uses American Sign Languag

e at a certain, optimal
pace. It’s the product of a three-year, $1.1 million grant from the NSF
and nearly $1 million of additional funding from the W.M. Keck
Foundation and builds on research that Petitto has done for decades.
Preliminary
results indicate that the robot is able to keep children’s attention
for up to six minutes at a time. Infants who are only six to eight
months old began to gesture in a rhythm linked with sign language after
only a few minutes during this early work. Getting the hang of that
rhythm might indicate that a child is learning some important
foundations of any language, like picking out the sounds or other basic
units of a language.
“This
is work in progress,” emphasized Laura Ann Petitto, the lead researcher
and an educational neuroscientist at Gallaudet University. She will
present the preliminary results of her work with RAVE to a National
Science Foundation committee on October 24. “It’s evolving and will
continue to evolve for another year,” she said.
RAVE could be
especially useful for children who are born deaf. Hearing parents of
deaf or hard-of-hearing children face a choice: learn American Sign
Language—quickly—or risk that their child may struggle to pick up
language later in life.
Many linguists accept that there is a
critical period in an infant and young child’s life that they’re
particularly sensitive to language. Without hearing or seeing some
language when they are very young, children wouldn’t be able to learn.
About
two to three of every 1,000 children in the United States is born with
some kind of hearing loss, though some national surveys have reported higher rates. Almost all of these children are born to parents who can hear.
“There’s
no question that this work will have a direct impact on young, deaf
infants and their academic trajectory through life,” Petitto said.
Gallaudet, located in Washington, D.C., is the only university in the
world designed for students with hearing loss.
However, she added,
it could also be useful to addressing disparities that contribute to
other kinds of inequality, even among hearing children. Some research
has pointed to a “word gap” between children from wealthier families and
those from poor ones that develops before kindergarten. (However,
Petitto noted, some of the specific research showing a 30-million word
gap had serious methodological issues, including small sample sizes.)
LAP and MAKI Robot
Laura Ann Petitto poses with the MAKI robot, a component of a tool that
she and her team have designed to help children learn language—even
without a parent present. Courtesy of Laura Ann Petitto/Gallaudet University
The
fact that this tool could get and keep an infant’s attention in a
meaningful way is remarkable on its own. But the robot seems to have
overcome a major issue that has plagued other language acquisition
tools. The kind of human interaction children need to learn language
isn’t easily replicated. Studies on Baby Einstein videotapes, for
example, didn’t find any positive effects on a child’s vocabulary.
Specifically,
Petitto said, babies need interaction that actually makes sense. “It’s
not good enough that there’s just the social interaction. When
communicative actions happen, they have to be relevant and contingent
and meaningful based on what the child just said,” she explained.
Still,
don’t go looking for RAVE next to Furbies at the store just yet. It’s
still a prototype, and the research is still preliminary. It also won’t
replace all human interaction; even with RAVE, children will still need
to communicate with humans to learn language. Though Petitto said the
data is promising, it’s likely still far, far too early to tell if RAVE
has any long-term effects on a child’s language abilities.
Late
next year, Petitto said she and her team will probably start thinking
about production. The team is planning another round of tests with a
tweaked robot this month. “As scientists, we’re not going to sit back
and read a book now,” she said. “We noticed a couple of things that we
wanted to fix and we’re fixing them.”

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