Texas : Schools looking to purchase humanoid robots for work with autistic children would get extra help from taxpayers under a bill that gained committee approval Monday.
Members of the House Education Committee signed off on HB418, which would set aside $200,000 to reimburse school districts and charter schools for half the cost of a robot designed for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder.
At a cost of $5,000 each, bill sponsor Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said: “The districts or the charters would have to come up with a significant amount of money as well if they want to try this.”
Last was joined in his presentation by Dan Nelson and Mark Child, representatives of the Texas-based company RoboKind, which would likely be the beneficiary of the bill’s funding. HB418 does not name a specific company or product, but RoboKind’s “Milo” aligns with the bill’s requirement for a “humanoid robot program that provides comprehensive facial expressions and screen icons designed to teach social and behavioral skill development.”
Nelson said children with autism often struggle with social interactions, but are able to interact with and connect to “Milo,” a roughly two-foot-tall figure that mimics human facial expressions.
“They do not engage with people,” Nelson said. “They do engage with Milo, in fact many of these kids view Milo as their friend.”
Last described the technology as “emerging.” He said its efficacy with treating autism has not been proven, but there is interest among educators, particularly at Utah’s Spectrum Academy, a charter school that focuses on children with autism.
“I don’t personally believe its proven and even the information that we’ve had here is anecdotal,” Last told committee members. “But I think there’s enough promise that it makes sense for us to provide a little bit of an incentive.”
Committee members questioned if a change in state law was necessary, as schools are currently eligible for technology grants and receive other pools of supplementary funding for local projects.
“I just don’t think this rises to the level of legislation,” said Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. The committee ultimately voted 6-2 in favor of the bill, which will advance to the full House for consideration.
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