Now Robots Are Playing Angry Birds, and the Reason Why Is Totally Inspiring

An innovative Georgia Institute of Technology program lets children with autism or motor skill disorders teach the humanoid machines to play the game.
Jul 17, 2014·
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

If you’re into gaming on your smartphone, chances are you’ve given in to the Angry Birds temptation. The addictive game has been a favorite for all ages­—from young kids flicking birds across the screen at the dinner table to parents targeting enemy pigs on their way home from work. Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are giving the time-wasting game a more socially relevant spin.

Georgia Tech researchers have teamed the game with a humanoid robot, leveraging both software and hardware technologies to rehabilitate children with motor skill impairments or autism spectrum disorders.

Not only are these Wall-E-like robots adorable to interact with, but they also have the ability to learn and mimic the movements a kid playing Angry Birds makes on an Android tablet. If a child flicks an Angry Bird across the screen and misses its target, the robot is able to register the movement (in this case, swiping and aiming). It can then recalculate a more accurate move that would enable it to hit the target during its turn.

“It recognizes that a person touched here and ended there, then deciphers the information that is important and relevant to its progress,” Ayanna Howard, Georgia Tech’s Motorola Foundation Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, told Gatech.edu.

If the robot wins, it does its version of the touchdown dance; if it loses, it lowers its head in disappointment. Nobody likes to lose to a computer, let alone a robot, but these human-like gestures create an engaging environment that encourages the kids to continue with their therapy.

In the world of physical and cognitive therapy, it’s essential for patients to participate in repetitive exercise during their sessions and also at home. The robot’s ability to learn movements from the patient and adapt accordingly enables it to lead the child in exercises that focus on skills like hand-eye coordination. Not only can the robot help keep the child focused and immersed in the exercises, but it also saves the therapists and parents from having to participate in dull, repetitive actions.

“Imagine that a child’s rehab requires 100 arm movements to improve precise hand-coordination movements,” said Howard. “He or she must touch and swipe the tablet repeatedly, something that can be boring and monotonous after a while. But if a robotic friend needs help with the game, the child is more likely to take the time to teach it, even if it requires repeating the same instructions over and over again. The person’s desire to help their ‘friend’ can turn a five-minute, bland exercise into a 30-minute session they enjoy.”

The Angry Birds–robot combination is just the latest example of how technology is playing a key role in advancing the way we can improve the lives of the disabled. From software tech that helps kids with autism to robot suits that enable paraplegics to walk, the possibilities for machines to be a part of rehabbing people are endless.

Additional digital games are going to be a part of that rehab. The Georgia Tech researchers plan to expand their project to include the highly addictive Candy Crush Saga.