By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — At recent School Committee meeting, NAO the robot entertained the audience by dancing “Gangnam Style” — just like South Korean pop singer PSY.
But when he’s at his day job, Haverhill’s state-of-the-art automaton works with teachers and young autistic children at Moody School.
Haverhill is among a few school districts in the United States chosen by the Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics company as a test site for its newest humanoid robot.
NAO, as it’s called, was developed specifically to assist teachers working with students who suffer from autism, said Olivier Joubert, a programmer for the company. He introduced NAO to the School Committee at the meeting.
According to information provided by Aldebaran, NAO is “a fully interactive, versatile, fun and continuously evolving humanoid robot able to host educative, entertaining and daily-life assistance applications.”
“Most children diagnosed with autism are attracted to technology to some extent because of its predictability, low amount of sensory information to process, and judgement-free demeanor compared to human interactions,” Joubert said. “While NAO cannot cure autism, we believe he will not only makes kids smile, but more importantly teach them important social interaction skills.”
Moody School Principal Maureen Gray said the company tested the 22.5-inch-tall robot at the school before it arrived for good two weeks ago.
“It was incredible to see how well NAO did with some of our autistic students,” Gray said. “Some students who barely react to people had a great reaction to the robot.”
Moody School’s 200 prekindergarten students include a mix of regular and special education students in integrated classrooms, Gray said.
NAO uses two built-in cameras and vocal recognition software to recognize faces and voices, Joubert said. It can even play catch by using its “prehensile” fingers to grasp a ball, he said.
Until recently, tests involving the robots and students were limited to 15 research and educational institutions across the world, including the University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut.
When the program was opened to elementary schools, Haverhill was one of 30 to 40 American schools that contacted the company, Joubert said. He said Haverhill and one other school district in New York were the only host sites selected on the east coast.
“Moody School had kids of the right age and the right degree of autism we were looking for,” Joubert said, “not too high functioning and not too severe.”
Joubert said two robots — one red and one blue — that have been placed at Moody School are the city’s to keep.
They cost $17,000 each, according to the company’s website, but are currently available only to educators or researchers.
“We decided to let the school keep the robots because it would be unfair to take them away after the kids get used to them,” Joubert told the School Committee.
The NAO program includes an online feature for teachers to store information about specific students and to monitor their progress. Another online feature being developed will allow parents to view information on their child’s participation and progress in the program.
Joubert said he and other programmers are in regular contact with teachers at Moody School to get feedback on how the robots are performing.
“We plan to fine tune them based on feedback from teachers and then re-program them to make them better,” he said.