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Requirements for Robotic Systems as Augmentative Manipulation Assistive Technologies for Cognitive Development, Play, and Education

Robots can be used as augmentative manipulation systems due to their capability for picking, placing, and exploring objects (Tejima 2000). Among the assistive technologies available for manipulation for cognitive assessment, play, and academic activities, robots are flexible in interactions with the environment; they can do more than one repetitive action, and they can manipulate three-dimensional objects in the real world (Cook et al. 2000, 2002).

However, using the robot as a tool is not the same as manipulating objects with one’s hand. Action mediated by a tool can add additional cognitive demands to the task (Keen 2011), which, in the case of augmentative manipulation, can result in poor robot operational competence, which can be confused with poor performance on the task. For example, to perform the robot-mediated tasks discussed in the work of Poletz et al. (2010), children need to understand that pressing the switch causes the robot to move in a certain way or that when using two or more switches the robot can move in sequences that give the child more control over the step-bystep movement of the robot (Cook et al. 2005; Poletz et al. 2010). Thus, robots may decrease the motor demand while increasing the task’s cognitive complexity. It is critical to understand the additional cognitive and perceptual demands that the use of the robot imposes on the child. On one hand, this can guide the selection and adaptation of the human-robot interface. On the other hand, robot characteristics and programming can be adapted to match the needs and skills of the child as well as the task and goals.

A theoretical approach to the assessment and quantification of the complexity of children using the robot as a tool, rather than directly manipulating an object with their arm and hand, has been explored (Alvarez, Adams, and Cook 2016). The complexity number hypothesis, first proposed by Van Leeuwen, Smitsman, and Van Leeuwen (1994) for common tools, was used to assess the complexity of a robot-mediated task performed by an infant with a disability; this was compared with the demands encountered by a typically developing infant when using a common tool. Through this approach, the authors established that, from a cognitive and perceptual perspective, there is an increase in complexity of robot-mediated activities over that of simple tools. Far from discouraging the use of robots by young children with disabilities, the complexity of robotic augmentative manipulation systems further supports the fact that by the very interaction with robots, children with physical disabilities can display and develop cognitive skills.

A survey of commercially available robots costing from $250 to $500 was compiled and compared to desirable characteristics of robots for cognitive development, play, and education of children with disabilities (Cook, Encarna^ao, and Adams 2010). Characteristics included being flexible, robust, safe, easy to use and learn, portable, aesthetically pleasing, and reasonably priced; having an appropriate human-robot interface; and providing various levels of control. Their cost, bulkiness, and nonplayful appearance eliminate assistive robotic manipulators like the ones described in Chapter 3 as candidates for the applications considered here. A review by Cook, Encarna^ao, and Adams (2010) revealed no commercially available robots that were entirely suitable for use by children with disabilities, but the Lego Mindstorms or the Fischertechnik Robot Explorer™ were found to be appropriate as long as the needed adaptations for an interface to accept children’s alternate physical abilities were made.

Critical factors involved in the use of the robots by children to support play have been identified (Besio, Caprino, and Laudanna 2008): factors related to play (functions of play, types of play); factors related to the individual according to the International Classification of Functioning—Children and Youth Version (ICF-CY); factors related to the context according to the ICF-CY; factors related to technology and robotics (approach to technology development, usability, quality of life, and characteristics for autonomous and safe play); and factors related to methodology. Usability considerations (accessibility, universal design, and innovation) and functional aspects of the technology (communication and social interaction, manipulation and mobility) are discussed (Besio, Caprino, and Laudanna 2008). Usability of assistive robots is a major concern (Tsun et al. 2015), especially when considering their use by children who have physical impairments and perhaps concomitant cognitive impairments or delays. Children’s success in understanding the use of a robot depends on the flexibility of the robotic system, not only in terms of the degrees of freedom but also related to the capacity of the robotic system to be adjusted to different levels of cognitive demands and motor impairments for the child.

The human-robot interface (cf. Chapter 2) should accommodate the abilities of the child with disabilities. A complete review of the many different ways to access assistive technology, along with a framework for control interface decision making, has been presented (Cook and Polgar 2015). Many of the typical interfaces to assistive technology (e.g., keyboards, joysticks, head gimbals, eye gaze, voice control, or switches) can also be used to control robots. For children with severe disabilities, finding as many avenues of input as possible may be beneficial. However, these additional input channels need to be balanced with keeping the methods of control intuitive. Another issue is that the interfaces can be cognitively demanding. For instance, using scanning with switches requires monitoring the options being presented to the user, correctly selecting the desired option, as well as monitoring the robot. Eye tracking requires children to divert attention from the robot to make selections on a computer screen. Another factor to consider is how multiple activities might need to be controlled from the same interface. Controlling the robot from an augmentative communication device is one example of using the same interface for multiple purposes (Adams and Cook 2016b). There are other combinations that may be needed (e.g., electronic aids to daily living, wheelchair, mobile robot, or robot arm).

Similar to any other assistive technology, the considerations mentioned should be framed in a model that encompasses the user, the activity to be performed, the technology, the context of use, and the dynamic interactions between these (cf. the Human Activity Assistive Technology [HAAT] model described in Chapter 1). Depending on the complexity of the situation, a team of individuals may be involved in designing, developing, and implementing a robotic intervention. The knowledge and skills of different professionals may be beneficial in assessing the needs and abilities of the children; demands in the environments; cognitive, play, or educational goals; and related activities. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, rehabilitation engineers, psychologists, and teachers are potential team members. At the center of the team should be the child and his or her parents, as they are the experts in the personal factors that will influence functioning of the system, for instance, what motivates the child, preferences, and what is feasible in their environment.

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