USC researchers explore how robots might help infants at risk for developmental delay

Beth Smith, Maja Matarić awarded a $300K grant by the National Science Foundation to develop an in-home, infant-robot intervention. 

By Katharine Gammon

It might seem like a scene straight out of science fiction: afour-month-old baby sitting in her chair while an infant-sized robot across from her, gestures, shines lights and makes sounds to engage her.

The scene could quickly become reality, thanks to a collaboration between researchers at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Assistant Professor of Research Beth A. Smith and USC Viterbi Professor Maja Matarić have been awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for an interdisciplinary study that could one day lead to a safe robotic intervention for infants at risk for developmental delay.   

Importance of motor babbling

The goal of the interdisciplinary study is to explore how asocially assistive robot might give personalized feedback toinfants to promote motor babbling - movement exploration likekicking legs and waving arms - which is a developmental process that teaches them how to interact with their environment and control their bodies. 

In typically developing babies, this motor exploration resultsin rewards like a caregiver's smile or the ability to reach a new toy. But babies who are at risk for developmental delays may have less such motor exploration, fewer rewards and therefore less motivation to move. This can lead to lifelong limitations in motor, cognitive and social abilities.

Brave new world

The researchers aim to use robotics to answer some fundamental questions about how infants learn new skills. They also hope to test how infants make changes to their movements. "We know that babies are able to adjust the amount of movement, but we want to know if they can adjust different control parameters like the amplitude or peak acceleration of their movement," Smith said."That's important because it helps us better design interventions."

Matarić pointed out that affordable robotics technology is starting to enter not only hospitals but also homes, creating opportunities for earlier diagnosis and intervention. "Socially assistive robotics has not yet been explored with infants, yet it has great potential for that critical stage of child development," Matarić said. "We are expecting some fundamentally new insightsfrom this work."

Power of two disciplines

Smith studies babies' early movement both as a way to identify a typical development early in life, and as a way to intervene and help them. 

She is the director of USC's Infant Neuromotor Control Lab. She completed her master's of science and doctor of physical therapy degrees at Boston University, her doctorate degree at the University of Michigan and a post-doctoral fellowship at Oregon Health & Science University. She joined the USC faculty in 2013. 

Matarić founded the field of socially assistive robots and has demonstrated effective therapeutic human-robot interaction in children with autism, patients who have survived a stroke and elderly with Alzheimer's disease - among other populations.

She is a founding director of the USC Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center and co-director of the USC Robotics Research Lab. She is also USC Viterbi's vice dean for research and the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair Professor of Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics.

Before earning this grant, Smith and Matarić teamed upon a pilot study, during which they put wearable sensors and ahead-mounted eye tracker on six typically developing infants. They found that the infants looked at the robot and modulated their own movements in relation to the robot. 

Related: Monitoring Babies' Lives : Researchers at the Division ofBiokinesiology and Physical Therapy and the Viterbi School ofEngineering team up to examine poor motor development in infants

 Posted 09.07.2017