Robots are boosting the life chances of children and young adults with learning difficulties, disabilities and autism in the North West.
The small humanoid robots are designed to support therapists and educators and use facial expressions, gestures and games as part of specially designed educational modules.
They are being used to teach children cognitive, language, social and emotional skills that encourage greater participation and interaction in the classroom.
Known as QTrobots, they help to create a consistent environment that doesn’t over-stimulate students – children and adults – and helps them maintain their attention while they learn life skills in ‘gamified’ lessons.
They have already had an impact in the classroom at education centres in the North West where three robots have been deployed, thanks to the support of the Innovation Agency.
The QTrobot, described as an ‘expressive social robot’, was developed by Luxembourg tech company LuxAI. Health Innovation North West Coast, an NHS organisation that helps the spread and adoption of innovations in the health and care system, helped the company gain a foothold in the North West by introducing it to potential partners.
An educator – a teacher, support worker or therapist – controls the robot which stands on a desk and interacts with the student, acting as a pivot point between the two. The aim is to improve the student’s capacity to communicate and understand emotions and social contexts.
The robots have been adopted by the Together Trust, one of the North West’s leading disability charities that delivers education and other services for children and young adults with learning difficulties, disabilities, complex health needs and autism.
Tom, a 24-year-old student from Stockport, said: “I really enjoy the robots because they help me concentrate and they’re fun. When I work hard it makes me happy, and the robots help me work harder.”
Tom’s mother Frances added: “We know Tom loves being with the robots and the staff tell us that his progress has been remarkable. He can be very focused and actively listen, and he can stay engaged for a long time.
“What we’re hoping to see is Tom actually transferring that ability to stay focused to the things he does when the robots aren’t there.”
Jeremy Swinn, Acting Head of Bridge College in Manchester, one of the trust’s education centres, said the robots were part of a trial involving a handful of students.
“They’ve have had a really positive impact. All the students involved in the trial have responded well and are very willing to take part in activities.
“Many learners have engaged with the robots for lengthy periods of time, longer than they would engage in face-to-face interactions. The robots have tended to act as a pivot of attention between the learner and the member of staff and that’s led to sustained interactions – which in turn means better learning outcomes.”
Mr Swinn added there had been very positive feedback from both staff and the families of the young learners. And while the trust had been able to function reasonably well during the pandemic, the use of the robots had helped students avoid becoming socially isolated.
“We’ve used the robots with a relatively small group of learners, and I’d be very interested to see the impact on a larger group because the potential for improved outcomes is clear. We think we’re only just scratching the surface,” said Mr Swinn.
LuxAI says children with autism often take a keen interest in technology and react well to the rules-based and predictable nature of computers. They say the robot is somewhere between a computer and a social being and acts as a ‘point of joint attention between child and educator’.
Dr Aida Nazari, Head of Human-AI Interaction at LuxAI, said: “We are very confident in the product, having seen its extremely positive impact on students in the US, but we really needed a partner to help us find our way around the education system in England.
“We’re delighted the QTrobot is having such a positive impact and this success wouldn’t have been possible without the support we’ve had from the Innovation Agency.
“They’ve helped us at every stage with lots of guidance and they’ve put us in touch with the right people who can make decisions. We’re really grateful to them.”
Colin Callow, the Innovation Agency’s Head of International Programmes, said: “Working in partnership with the Together Trust offered a unique opportunity to support a leading charity to access and evaluate this breakthrough innovation.
“We could see very quickly the technology solution LuxAI were offering had great potential, so we were very pleased that we’ve been able to forge links between them and the Together Trust.
“We used our network of contacts to find an organisation that could embrace this innovation and evaluate its impact on children’s engagement in their educational and emotional development.
“It’s an exciting and innovative technology and we’re looking for opportunities to spread it further.”
He said the Innovation Agency provided the Together Trust with a grant to support an evaluation of the impact the robots were having on educational outcomes.
The project was supported by the EIT Health Bridgehead programme which offers bespoke packages of help to European start-up companies.