Within five years, Yale-designed robots may be helping teach children.

A Yale-led team of researchers from across the country received a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation on April 3 to pursue the creation of “socially assistive robots” to help young children learn basic skills and in some cases overcome cognitive disabilities. Brian Scassellati, associate professor of computer science and director of the project, titled the Expedition, has worked with robots that aid autistic children for nearly 10 years.

“I build robots as a way to understand people,” he said. “Using social psychology techniques we study how people respond to the robot as a stimulus.”

Over five years, the Expedition aims to create a fleet of robots that can be used to teach young children through social interaction. The robots, which more resemble toys for young children than the typical movie-style robot, will engage children in activities that promote behaviors ranging from increased social interaction to physical fitness and nutrition. The robots do not replace teachers — rather, Scassellati said, the robot “supports therapy or efforts of parents and families.”

He said that he has been conducting research on social robots for the past 10 years, but on a limited scale due to a lack of funding and the constraints of working in a lab. The influx of federal funding has allowed the research team, which consists of 17 members from Yale, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Southern California, to greatly expand the scope of the project.

“When we’ve been able to do this [research] in the past, we’ve done it under very controlled conditions — in the lab, in the clinic,” he said. “The goal is to be able to have [robots] we can hand over to a family.”

Scassellati said the expanded Expedition will place robots into homes in New Haven and schools in Los Angeles and Boston. He said that moving into unstructured environments such as homes and schools will require defeating new engineering problems.

Professor Rhea Paul, of the Yale Child Study Center, who has collaborated with Scassellati on the robot project, said that in addition to allowing expanded testing of the robots, the funding allows the team to develop robots that sustain long-term engagement. She added that the Expedition would focus on developing new robots that are “accessible across a broader age range.”

Scassellati said another challenge is keeping the robots interesting and relevant. The robots need to function on computational systems that are able to adapt to each individual child as well as adapt as children grow and learn.

“Kids aren’t static,” he said. “The robot that tells a joke once is fine, but the robot that tells the same joke every day for a year … it doesn’t last a year.”

One of the initial robot prototypes resembles a medium-sized toy dinosaur and costs more than $20,000 to build. Children interact with the robot through a series of games that test their social interaction skills. The children must, for example, encourage the frightened dinosaur to cross a river by speaking encouragingly, and the robot can respond to positive or negative tones.

Children with autism often speak without intonation, but both Paul and Scassellati said their studies have found that the children were more socially engaged when interacting with the robot, and with others afterward, than they would be normally.

Paul said that, especially in autistic children, the most important behaviors she attempts to encourage through interaction with the robots are eye contact, tonality of voice while speaking and reciprocal interaction. She said children with autism often “don’t pick up the conversational ball when it’s their turn,” and so she tries to help them engage more in conversation.

Though both Paul and Scassellati said their personal interest is in working with children with social and cognitive deficits, the Expedition focuses on broadly on engaging all children with the same underlying technology. Scassellati said the group aims to build robots “who act like a good coach or personal developer or trainer.”