The project has built a robot that interacts with children with autism and helps them learn about showing emotions.

Autism affects children in many ways, particularly their communication and interaction skills: they can have difficulties recognising and understanding people’s behaviours and expressing their own emotions. Conventionally, foundational skills like emotion recognition are taught face-to-face with an adult. The EU-funded project DE-ENIGMA is currently developing a less socially demanding and more entertaining option that uses artificial intelligence.

A humanoid robot known as Zeno helps to teach school-aged autistic children, who have additional intellectual disabilities or limited spoken communication, to express emotions. It will be able to process children’s movements, vocalisations and facial expressions in order to adaptively present activities linked to emotions, and engage in feedback, support and play.

Research has indicated that autistic children may benefit from targeted interventions that help them cope with the challenges they may face in social interactions. The DE-ENIGMA project uses Zeno, developed by the company Robokind, to support autistic children in learning about emotions, capitalising on their apparent preference for predictability. The technology includes deep learning algorithms to detect and interpret the child’s vocalisations, behaviours and facial expressions, interactive robot behaviours that adapt to the child’s actions and phase of learning, and a gaming engine to help the children progress through the learning steps.

Zeno is currently going through several design phases, becoming more intelligent every time. The first prototype has already been tested with more than 130 school age children in Serbia and the UK. The final prototype and activities will be tested in a randomised controlled trial in London schools to determine how effective robot-assisted intervention is at facilitating children’s emotion processing skills.

DE-ENIGMA in brief

  • Total Budget: EUR 3 904 188 (EU contribution: EUR 3 904 187.75)
  • Duration:02/2016-07/2019
  • Countries involved: Netherlands (coordinator), United Kingdom, Germany, Romania, Serbia, Belgium, Portugal

Key figures in the European Union

  • There are over 5 million people with autism in Europe.
  • In 2012 the European Commission established SPARC, a Public-Private Partnership in robotics, under the research and innovation programme Horizon 2020.
  • In 2018-20 the Commission is increasing its annual investment in AI to EUR 1.5 billion under Horizon 2020.

Artifical intelligence (AI)

AI is one of the most promising technologies for economic growth and addressing societal challenges in the years ahead. The new wave of AI-based innovations will profoundly impact not only digital products and services, but also traditional industry and the non- ICT sector, and will help to improve people’s everyday lives.

In April 2018 the European Commission presented a series of measures to increase public and private investment in AI, to prepare for socio-economic changes, and ensure an appropriate ethical and legal framework. The new Digital Europe programme that the Commission is proposing for 2021-27, with an overall budget of EUR 9.2 billion, also includes EUR 2.45 billion of funding for AI.

Download the full project success story.

Project website