Could artificial intelligence benefit children with autism?

Ned Sahin, a neuroscientist and founder of company Brain Power, thinks so. He is part of a wave of scientists who hope technology can improve the social communication and interaction skills of people with autism.

It is among a growing number of start-ups looking to target the education industry with apps and solutions aimed at specialist areas. Google Chromebooks and Apple iPads are becoming more commonplace in classrooms, including those for pupils with special needs. A study by eSchool News shows the use of AI in education is set to grow nearly 50% by 2021.

Growth at this scale has helped to push global investment in education technology companies to a record $9.6 billion in 2017, according to research firm Metaari, up from $7.3 billion in 2016. Ten of those learning tech companies each obtained over $100 million in funding, according to the report; including DAQRI, a mixed reality learning company based in Los Angeles.

Funding soars for education technology companies.
Image: Metaari

At the moment, the flood of investment is targeting consumer and corporate-facing technologies, with just 13% going to companies that focus on school-age products and only 8% to firms that target higher education.

Investment is lower for school-age and higher education technology.
Image: Metaari

For those with autism, new technologies may offer help to achieve their full potential at school as well as assessing data and improving research into their condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the figure is around one in 59 in the US.

Rising awareness has sparked a number of projects. Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization partnered with Google on a genetics research program that aims to sequence the DNA of 10,000 families affected by autism. Samsung has produced an app that helps children with autism make eye contact and has donated tablets to some families.

Brain Power aims to teach practical skills to children and adults all along the autism spectrum using Google Glass and a range of apps that offer feedback geared to the situation. The game-like apps connect to the cloud where AI is used to produce quick insights for the children, their parents and teachers.

Game-like apps could help autistic people with eye contact and interaction.
Image: Brain Power

In one of the apps, Emotion Charades, the person with autism sees an emoji floating on either side of someone’s face, then tilts their head to choose the one that matches the facial expression. At the same time, Brain Power’s software automatically monitors game performance as well as body language and checks for signs of anxiety.

With the WHO saying autism can limit an individual’s ability to participate in society, finding ways to use technology to ease that pathway can only be welcomed.

Brain Power is a member of the World Economic Forum's 2019 class of Technology Pioneers. Explore this year's full cohort of Technology Pioneers here.