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Zeca: the robot that interacts with autistic children Back

Thursday, 12/21/2017   
Pioneer in Portugal, the project of affective robotics was born in 2009 and already has positive results: the children who interacted with the robot acquired the competence to recognise emotions.
Robotics-Autism is the name of the research, led by Filomena Soares, professor at the Department of Industrial Electronics (DEI) and researcher at the ALGORITMI Research Centre, which uses the humanoid robot Zeca in the mediation between a human-partner and children with autism spectrum disorder. "Zeca has the special feature. Its face is made of a special polymer that closely resembles human skin. The robot is programmed here at the University, to simulate emotions: being sad, happy, scared and angry."

"Children with autism are essentially identified by disturbances in social interaction, but there are several studies that indicate that they are very keen on technology," says Vinicius Silva, one of the researchers who, from this point, developed an algorithm using machine learning technology through a camera incorporated in the robot, "leading the child to imitate the emotion represented by Zeca, later validated by the algorithm". On the contrary, during the first phase of the project, the interaction was only to identify the emotion.
Currently, the project is carried out within the scope of a master programme’s dissertation and a doctoral thesis. The research aims at leading the robot to recognise children's distraction patterns and the "development of a behavioural model in order to make the interaction more social and communicative", the researcher adds.

The team also counts with the collaboration of João Sena Esteves, professor at the Department of Industrial Electronics (DEI) and researcher at the ALGORITMI Research Centre, Vinicius Silva, student of the Doctoral Program in Electronics and Computer Engineering, and also Bruno Amaro, student of the Integrated Master's in Industrial Electronics and Computers Engineering. The project also includes Ana Paula Pereira, from the Centre for Research in Education of the UMinho, and Feliciano Guimarães, pedo-pediatrician.