UCF researchers developing AI to help students with autism

Nine-year-old Aiden sat in a dark tent, talking with "Zoobee."

Zoobee is an animated character on a computer who talks with students who have developmental disabilities, like Aiden.

"He does have a cognitive delay. Sometimes coupled with that comes that social-emotional growth that he could benefit from," said Dr. Karyn Scott, principal of UCP Pine Hills, where Aiden went to school.

For now, Zoobee is controlled by an actual person who replies to Aiden.

However, researchers with the University of Central Florida (UCF) are trying to gather enough data from Aiden and the other test participants to create artificial intelligence (AI) for Zoobee. That way, the computer could communicate with students like Aiden who have trouble relating to people on a social and emotional level.

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The ultimate goal of the project is to have Zoobee on a tablet or a screen that students could take with them to class and it would interact with them based on their facial expressions.

"Zoobee is the social-emotional coach through the whole project. Zoobee's the one who helps explain to the child what an emotion feels like, even what it looks like, to a degree," said Dr. Rebecca Hines, a UCF professor working on the project.

For example, Zoobee has a heart that changes colors based on its emotions.

"My heart, sometimes it shows what I'm feeling, so if I'm really happy it turns green, sometimes if I'm feeling sad it turns blue, if I'm mad it turns red, or if I'm worried it turns yellow," Zoobee explained when asked.

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At one point in the study, Aiden deliberately tried to make Zoobee upset just to see its heart change color. It was a moment that encouraged researchers, seeing Aiden understand that his actions could elicit specific emotional responses.

"So in this case, it's a nonthreatening way to learn that. If you noticed in that exchange, he eventually apologized for it. So those of us outside Zoobee's world, we're all looking at each other saying that's perfect because we want every child to understand it does have an impact on the other person when you say something hurtful," Prof Hines said.

It will be a five-year project involving special needs students from several schools. Once they do create a fully-AI Zoobee, they plan to let schools across the county use it for free.

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