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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Dancing Robot that Could Help the Autistic

Is the adorable robot My Keepon just another toy fad, or a legitimate tool in socializing the autistic?

  • September 7, 2011

Products of the Japanese imagination have become American fads in the past—think Hello Kitty, Pokemon, or Tamigotchi. But in the case of My Keepon, which Toys “R” Us is betting might be the next Japanese toy invasion, the backstory is unlike any other. My Keepon—a simple, yellow, dancing robot—has beneath its unassuming exterior some sophisticated robotics. And it might just become an important tool in socializing children with autism.

On the face of it, My Keepon is such a basic thing that one hesitates to call it a robot at all. But that’s exactly what it is, the brainchild of a Japanese roboticist named Hideki Kozima at Miyagi University. As Kozima explains on his faculty page, his specialty is researching the ability to imagine the minds of others—an interest that has to do with robotics and artificial intelligence, but also with cognitive science and disorders.

About seven years ago, reports BusinessWeek’s Ashlee Vance, Kozima began to wonder whether a simple robot might not be a boon in the socializing of autistic children. Those with autism can find face-to-face interaction with humans too much to handle. But a pared-down, cute robot might be simple enough to attract an autistic child’s attention and teach him something about sociality. Keepon, the apparently simple robot he developed, actually held about $30,000 worth of technology in its modest yellow package. Testing out the robot, Kozima found, anecdotally at least, that his hypothesis appeared correct; writes Vance: “Kozima found that autistic children made more eye contact with the robot than they did with people. Behaviors they rarely expressed toward humans, like touching and nurturing, became more commonplace.”

At this point in the story, what would make sense would be for autism researchers to rally behind Kozima and for his robot to be developed into a therapeutic tool. Instead, something stranger happened, something demonstrating that the internet and the toy industry have a way of moving faster than clinical research.

In 2006, a roboticist with similar interests to those of Kozima, Dr. Marek Michalowski, went to work with Kozima in Japan. Michalowski focused on the software side of things, and he programmed the robot how to dance. And not just how to dance, but how to really get down—so much so, that a YouTube video posted of Keepon grooving to Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” became an internet sensation, garnering 2.6 million views.

An embedded microphone helps Keepon keep track of the music, and an algorithm in its computer adds an element of randomness to its dance, giving it those fresh moves.

It spawned a range of parody videos. And it was only a matter of time before a toy company decided it wanted to make a buck off the thing. Michalowski and Kozima joined forces with a British toy maker, WOW! Stuff, which renamed the toy My Keepon. A pared down My Keepon is expected to retail this fall at Toys “R” Us for under $50. The thing is poised to be absolutely huge, with ad campaigns in the works; you can expect your children to be bugging you for one shortly.

Amidst all this commercialization, though, what of My Keepon’s original mission—to serve as a tool for clinicians hoping to break through to children who find it easier to socialize with a simple robot than with a complex, messy human? WOW! Stuff has pledged to donate a portion of its proceeds to autism research, so that researchers can finally produce some real clinical data, rather than anecdotal reports on the yellow bloblet’s efficacy. By then, though, it may almost be a moot point, since families with autistic children across the country may already own My Keepons of their own. It’s a good thing toy robots don’t require FDA approval; here’s a therapy that may be finding its way to the afflicted through the sheer forces of the market.

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