Making AI droids at the Lux Future Lab The story of the LuxAI startup
by Stephen Evans
Therapists often find it hard to attract and retain the attention of autistic children, and using robots has been shown to be particularly helpful. However, specially-designed droids were difficult to use until LFL-based LuxAI made a major breakthrough with their QTrobot.
Every child with autism is different. They often have problems understanding social cues such as facial expressions and body language, and many find it a challenge to give appropriate responses. Traditional methods feature therapists working with cards or computer screens, but studies have shown that these methods are not able to hold children’s attention adequately.
Dr. Aida Nazarikhorram & Dr. Pouyan Ziafati
Moreover, the children often have difficulties generalizing into daily life the skills that they learn from a computer screen.
In general, people with autism have a high interest in technology and robots in particular. Autism researchers have known this for a long while, and using robots in psychology labs have been shown to be effective in helping children to learn new skills. But to get the best results these tools need reprogramming for each individual, and few autism professionals have the necessary tech skills.
QTrobot from LuxAI has made the breakthrough by being easy to program via a mobile or tablet app. This lovable 63cm droid displays emotional cues via its screen “face” and its moving head, arms and upper body, which move to replicate human body language. Using the latest artificial intelligence tools makes it instantly interactive, with a 3D camera able to detect facial expressions and react accordingly. Similarly, voice recognition software makes the robot able to respond to vocal queues, including talking in six languages.
These features are impressive enough, but what makes QTrobot extra special is that anyone can program it. Some kids need the most basic help interpreting the emotions of the person they are talking to. QTrobot can exaggerate the key facial expressions that denote happiness, sadness, anger etc. Once this has been understood, the therapist can help the child recognise the equivalent changes in a human face or body. Once these skills are acquired, kids need to learn strategies of how respond to someone experiencing an emotion. Here the voice and facial recognition tools play a key role, with the droid able to respond with speech, facial expressions and body language of its own. Studies have shown this increases attention spans by about 50% on average.
As each child’s needs change over time, their autism training must move in step. As easy as using a smartphone, autism professionals can program QTrobot to meet the unique needs of each child. Integrating QTrobot into an autism training sessions is easy, and there is no need for professionals to change the way they work. QTrobot is flexible enough to adapt to any methodology that practitioners find effective. LuxAI have also worked with psychologists and practitioners to have pre-programmed standard curriculums.
The inspiration for LuxAI came from the PhD research carried out by CEO Dr. Pouyan Ziafati at the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Center for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT). It was further developed though a proof of concept project funded by Luxembourg’s National Research Fund (FNR). This work combined cutting edge knowledge in computing, engineering, and psychology.
“The next step was to develop a prototype and prove commercial viability to enable us to move towards industrialising QTrobot”
After graduating, Pouyan and his wife Dr Aida Nazarikhorram co-founded LuxAI in 2016 with a view to bringing this technology to market. “Pouyan’s doctorate demonstrated that the technology worked, and further studies by the University’s psychology department pointed to clear practical benefits ” explained Aida, the firm’s chief communication officer, who herself is a qualified medical doctor. “The next step was to develop a prototype and prove commercial viability to enable us to move towards industrialising QTrobot ” she explained. They received support from Luxembourg’s National Research Fund (FNR) and secured three offices at the Lux Future Lab.
The first prototypes were developed in their boulevard Royal workshop. Droids were then given to autism professionals working in a range of centres for children with special needs. This experience helped LuxAI test and fine tune the technology. “The response has been excellent ” enthused Aida. “Word of mouth and online discussions attracted substantial interest to our website, and we’ve received orders from all over the world ” she said. The team are now working to industrialise production to satisfy this demand. “We are currently moulding the robot components to make them available and affordable in large quantities ” she added. At the same time they are strengthening their commercial efforts.
“Being at the Lux Future Lab these last two years has contributed to our success ” Aida commented. Staff, clients and partners are energised by the central location and entrepreneurial, welcoming atmosphere. LuxAI also appreciate the consulting advice, helping them with the finer points of developing commercial strategies and techniques. The firm has ambitious plans to expand into providing support for people with other learning disorders, as well as tools that could help elderly people. “ This is for the future, but for now were more than happy at the LFL and we hope to stay as long as possible ” said Aida.
"Word of mouth and online discussions attracted substantial interest to our website, and we've received orders from all over the world"