A new robot is teaching people with autism to navigate office politics

Adults with autism often find it difficult to read subtle emotional cues that other people may take for granted, and teaching them how to recognize those signals can be a challenge. Researchers at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University say they’ve invented a solution: Alyx, a robotic emotion teacher.

Alyx was built to address a particular problem: In the US and the UK, more than 80% of autistic adults are unemployed. “And the main issue is not that they can’t do the work,” Thusha Rajendran, one of Alyx’s creators, says. “It’s the workplace politics, especially being able to understand what people really mean, rather than simply what they say. And part of that is understanding emotional expression.”

Alyx’s face is simple, with very few features: humanoid, Rajendran explains, but not human-like. And that’s on purpose; human faces generate lots of small extraneous signals that people with autism can find difficult to decode. By contrast, Alyx’s basic, easily controllable robotic face makes it an ideal teacher of social cues.

In a training session with Alyx, a user would perform a clerical task, like filing paper, and Alyx would respond with a sign of approval or disapproval. Alyx’s creators say this is the main hurdle that adults with autism need help getting over: Knowing whether or not they’re doing a good job. Watch the video above to see how it works.

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