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Experts believe that the optimal time to teach kids language skills is when they are infants. Most times the task is easily accomplished with parents reading or talking to their babies. However, in some cases that is not possible due to busy work schedules or when kids are born deaf. In the latter case, parents either have to quickly become adept at sign language or risk the child facing potential learning delays in the future. Now, an adorable blue-eyed robot, a human avatar, and some high-tech neuroscience may be able to assist parents and guardians with this crucial developmental task.

The Robot AVatar Thermal-Enhanced system, or RAVE, is the brainchild of a team of researchers led by Laura Ann Petitto, an educational neuroscientist, at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University. The learning process begins when the robot’s thermal camera, which is focused on the baby’s face, detects tiny changes in his/her body temperature, which is associated with alertness. This, combined with the baby’s engaged facial expression, causes the robot to turn its head and guide the infant’s attention to a computer screen. Here, a human avatar starts to communicate with the baby, much like a parent would. For example, if the infant points towards the screen, the avatar might respond, “Are you pointing to me?” and follow that up with a nursery rhyme, fairy tale, or some essential social communication, all in American sign language (ASL). The “conversation” continues until the kid loses interest.

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The researchers, who have been testing the system for three years, found that infants as young as 6 to 8 months old began to move their hands in a rhythm similar to ASL after interacting with RAVE for just a few minutes. Petitto says natural language, whether communicated through speech or sign, activates the same parts of the brain and believes the rhythmic motion proves the infants are learning the essential elements of communication.

What sets this technique apart from other methods, such as showing educational videos or television shows, is its interactive nature and real-time response to the baby’s actions. The researchers say that while it is too early to ascertain the system’s long-term impact on infant communication, the initial response has been very encouraging. Next, they plan to introduce an avatar that can both sign and speak to infants.