With lifelike robot, the future is now in Park City | ParkRecord.com

With lifelike robot, the future is now in Park City

The future, seen on the big screen in dozens of science fiction blockbusters, has come to Park City.

In some small way, that is.

Stokes Educational Services, a Missouri-based company, was in town last week to show off the NAO Robot, a small robot with a number of functions designed to help children. Robert Stokes, president of Stokes Educational Services, said the robot is artificial intelligence brought to life.

"It can do so many lifelike tasks," he said.

Stokes said the robot was first developed by a project the French government funded to prove the county could compete technologically with Japan. But after it was designed and completed, the French found out there was one minor problem.

"They had a robot, but they didn’t really have a purpose for it," he said. "So they started working with universities in Europe and the United States to figure out, ‘OK, what can we use this robot for?’"

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As it turns out, plenty. Stokes said the robot can be used for a variety of purposes, such as working with autistic children, helping ease anxiety in children visiting the doctor and even as a programming tool for students. While he was in town, Stokes demonstrated the robot to the National Ability Center, Summit Pediatrics and the Park City School District.

The robot, which stands perhaps 18 inches tall, can interact intelligently with humans and even dance. Stokes said that makes it a perfect companion for autistic children. As they become more comfortable with the robot, they begin to open up in ways they often don’t with other humans, increasing their communication by up to 80 percent.

"You’ll have non-responsive autistic students who then become much more responsive," he said.

One of the robot’s other primary uses is as a tool for doctors. Stokes said studies have shown the robot can decrease the pain among children getting shots, chemotherapy or blood drawn by up to 50 percent. It’s a simple matter of diverting children’s attention away from the pain and onto the robot interacting with them.

"It’s like having a friend with them," Stokes said. "If you’re watching the robot, you’re not even noticing that the needle is coming."

Reducing pain for children visiting the doctor has other positive effects, as well.

"You have parents whose kids don’t want to go back to the doctor because of trauma, and the parents sometimes won’t bring them back because they don’t want to go through that ordeal," Stokes said. "So they don’t get immunized or treated. But by reducing that trauma, this robot makes it more likely that doesn’t happen."

But that’s not where the robot’s uses for a doctor ends, Stokes said. Doctors can actually send the robot home with patients and program it to remind them to follow instructions. For instance, the robot can wake up at a certain time and remind a patient to take medicine. It can also ask the patients questions about how they’re doing, then send that information back to the doctor.

"Then the doctor can get that and send follow-up instructions that the robot downloads and gives to the patient," Stokes said.

The robot can also be used in the classroom, as a tool to teach students how to write code and program computers. Research shows the robot is actually one of the best ways to get girls involved in programming and robotics, Stokes said.

"Your typical robotics competition is going to be one robot going to fight another robot, and that attracts a lot of boys," Stokes said. "But this robot can tell stories, it can dance and it can teach. That appeals to a lot of girls. So we find that in the robotics classes where they use these robots, instead of it being 80 to 90 percent boys, it’s about 50/50."