TI Accelerates Autism Research – With a Robot Named Zeno

It’s scary, frustrating, trying -- to know your child is demonstrating unusual behaviors or showing signs of limited cognitive development. Yet you can’t reach a diagnosis – and are forced to wait months to get one.

That’s the struggle parents of autistic children often face. Clues – not gesturing, babbling, or warmly smiling by 12 months of age – are often there, but are sometimes dismissed by doctors. According to AutismSpeaks.org, there’s no medical test to diagnose this complex brain development disorder – parents must seek out trained psychologists and physicians for behavioral evaluations.

Enter Zeno, a two-foot-tall robot with lifelike facial expressions and gestures. Created by University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), Hanson Robotics, and other research organizations and technology firms with funding from Texas Instruments, the robot will give parents the answers they need – at an earlier age. Zeno is set to be a game-changer for mid- and higher-functioning autistic children.

In pilot phase launched last year, Zeno created a relaxed evaluation environment, encouraging children to more naturally – and accurately – answer questions. “Children tend to respond better to suggestions from a non- authoritative figure, even if it’s a robot that is perceived as a peer,” says Sourabh Ravindran, team lead for sensor and biomedical research at TI’s Systems and Applications R&D center. “These learned cues can then help therapists better tailor their approach.”   

Where does TI fit in? Voice and vision recognition software running on TI chips provides real-time feedback for motor control. A skin-like surface with responsive sensors in development will further humanize Zeno. “Incorporating TI parts enables the use of a compact processing unit capable of highly complex image and signal processing,” Ravindran says.

UTA and its partners began the project in June 2011, with funding from TI and Texas Medical Research Collaboration, which aims to use engineering technology to address real-world problems by fostering teamwork among TI, Dallas-area universities and research firms.

“We care deeply about the community and are committed to improving quality-of-life by tackling challenging problems,” Ravindran says, adding that the goal is to better lives while making Dallas “the hotbed for path-breaking, interdisciplinary research in biomedical engineering.”

TI is now one step – and one robot gesture – closer.