Robauto’s Jalil Hartman holds a prototype robot in his office on Thursday. Robauto is partnering with a Denver company to develop artificial intelligence-based therapy for kids with behavioral issues.
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Longmont’s Robauto is working with a Denver software startup to bring artificial intelligence-powered therapy to kids dealing with behavioral issues.

In simple terms artificial intelligence refers to a machine that can think for itself quickly using data it is being fed. It can learn from experience, adjust to new inputs and perform human-like tasks, according to a description of AI on the website of SAS, a provider of software and services, including data analytics.

Many years ago Robauto’s founder, Jalali Hartman, created a robot to help children with autism spectrum disorder communicate and have social interaction using artificial intelligence. His BiBli robot platform that uses AI-driven voice, navigation, swarming and emotional response has been updated and improved since its first version in 2014.

“It’s about using light, sound and motion to create emotion using artificial intelligence,” Hartman said.

The BiBli brain is being used in multiple sectors from automotive to health care, he said.

“The BiBli system allows for easier, faster development of AI the same way WordPress powered a generation of self-publishers, we want to power a generation of robotics entrepreneurs and makers,” Hartman said.

Robauto will provide the “brain” for a robot that will help its partner, Manatee, create an AI-based application more effective in providing cognitive behavioral therapy to kids, he said. The AI-powered robot will be able to analyze a child’s verbal responses, facial expressions and vocal intonations to detect stress and anxiety, and provide a sympathetic ear and a reassuring response, Hartman said. The robot will, over time, learn users’ preferences as it acquires new skills using data it gathers from them.

Manatee’s therapy tool is being developed and tested via a standalone phone app, he said.

“Manatee is an impressive technology, which we believe has the potential to help a lot of people,” Hartman said.

Both companies are committed to removing barriers to technology and providing universal access to artificial intelligence to help improve society, Hartman said. “AI is going to be more impactful than electricity.”

The app, which was designed in collaboration with Children’s Hospital of Colorado and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, is being tweaked, said Manatee CEO and co-founder Dama Dipayana. The app is part of an effort to make mental health care accessible for kids, she said. It is focused on the emotional well-being of kids dealing with anxiety, autism, ADHD or other behavioral issues. Clinicians have helped create different categories of goals, such as communication skills and social skills, in the app that would respond in the way a therapist does.

“It would break negative thoughts. Your thoughts influence your emotions and your emotions influence your behavior,” Dipayana said.

The goal is to provide an intelligent, interactive support system via low-cost personal robots, Internet of Things devices and plush toys for children in need of emotional counseling. They will be engaging with a robot instead of sitting in an office, she said.

The app gamifies therapy and has a built-in AI companion, which provides text-based guidance and cognitive behavioral therapy exercises based on the personal experiences of Dipayana, who lost her older brother to mental illness.

A circuit board for a Robauto robot.

The two companies’ initial effort earned them a spot among 10 semi-finalists in the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Gamifying Pediatrics Hackathon in April. They will make a final presentation in October.

As part of the collaboration, Robauto is working to improve AI technology, allowing sensors to collect multiple data, process it quickly to gauge emotions and offer a response. The technology will continue to improve as it generates more data sets through usage, Hartman said. Robauto is testing voices for the robot that are soothing, he said. Kids sometimes get freaked out by robot voices, which makes it imperative to get the right tone, he said.

His company also is working to develop a physical form for the robot that kids can embrace, Hartman said. He and his team have been seeking input from young kids about the form of the robot.

“People don’t want a robot that looks like a robot,” Hartman said.

Robauto wants to develop a form that kids like, is durable and easy to clean and carry around, and can work in a hospital setting.

A 2017 study showed conversational agents can provide a feasible, engaging and effective way to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy. One of the study’s authors, Alison Darcy, launched  Woebot, a mental health chatbot in 2017. One of Darcy’s blogposts described Woebot as “part online learning exercise, part game, and part self-help book” that is used by hundreds of thousands of people, ages 16 to 90, in more than 130 countries.

Artificial intelligence for many evokes varied images of either machines taking over the world, or of a technology that works like magic, Hartman said. In reality, there’s huge gap between expectations and what’s doable, he said.

Adam Miner, a licensed clinical psychologist who is an instructor in Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said lay users’ expectations of artificial intelligence, or of their conversations with machines about personal mental health issues aren’t clear yet. But AI is filling a gap in the mental health space, he said. It augments treatment, and is not a replacement for established medical care, he said.

Conversational applications of artificial intelligence in mental health care are showing promise, he said. Studies have shown people were less fearful of self-disclosure and displayed their emotions more intensely when they thought they were talking with a computer, said Miner, who also is co-director of the Virtual Reality-Immersive Technology Clinic & Laboratory at Stanford.

The development of AI technology for mental health care would need more data and an ongoing evaluation of its effectiveness, he said. It also could potentially generate concerns about the issue of privacy and access to records, and unintended negative consequences, he said.

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