ATU388 – Milo and RoboKind with Dr. Greg Firn


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Dr. Greg Firn – Chief Operating Officer – RoboKind

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GREG FIRN: Hi, this is Dr. Greg Firn, and I’m the Chief Operating Officer for RoboKind, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.
JOSH ANDERSON: Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 388 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on November 2, 2018.

On today show, we are very excited to have Dr. Greg Firn, Chief Operating Officer at RoboKind, to talk about Milo and robots for autism. It’s a very interesting interview, and I encourage you to go forward to their website to see exactly what Milo looks like and how it works. Very interesting, very cool stuff. You can find out more about Milo at
Don’t forget, if you ever have questions for the show or folks you would like to hear on here, you can always call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Hit us up on Twitter@INDATA Project. Or send us an email at
Individuals with autism usually have difficulty reading social cues and interacting with their peers. Sometimes interacting with a therapist or service provider can pose a challenge and be a little overwhelming. What about interacting with the robot? Our guest today is Greg firn, chief operating officer from RoboKind. They’ve developed a robot that interacts with individuals on the spectrum to assist them with learning different skills.
Welcome to the show, Greg.
GREG FIRN: Thank you. It’s an honor and pleasure to be here.
JOSH ANDERSON: We are super excited to have you on here and to hear about RoboKind and all you’re doing. Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and your background?
GREG FIRN: Absolutely. This is the part my mother loves the best. I spent just about three and half decades in public education, 15 of which as a superintendent of schools. I’m really a person who has worked on the inside, if you will, with education. I migrated from public sector into private sector because of Fred and Richard Margolin, father/son, who had created Milo and found RoboKind in 2011. It was such an amazing experience to see some and I know as a superintendent, and certainly working in our special education population, more specifically with children on the spectrum, is a tool that can really create life-changing impacts. It was fortuitous and was a humbling to begin this journey which I’ve been on now for a little over two and half years.
JOSH ANDERSON: Very good. Tell our listeners a little bit about RoboKind and Milo himself.
GREG FIRN: Absolutely. The company was founded in 2011. As I mentioned, Richard Margolin, the son — Richard is an engineer by formal training and is one very intelligent, creative designer. Richard was approached by Dr. Pamela Rollins here at the University of Texas Dallas with the hypothesis that facially expressive humanoid social robots would engage at a higher level with children on the spectrum then, if you would, a human. Game on, the challenge became. Richard had been working in private sector with facially excessive robotics, but the challenge to actually create something that not only would do good but had life-changing impacts and benefits was something that really spurred him on. Fred, his father, just bought into it right away, literally, with a significant investment on their own to make this happen.
Milo was first through three years of clinical testing done at UTD in lab settings. Low and behold, the results were short of amazing. That engagement factor that Dr. Rollins hypothesized literally came into reality. Anywhere between 87 to 89 percent with the robot present versus 3 to 5 percent without a robot. We saw human engagement of unprecedented levels. That’s really what started us. We focus very specifically in the area of social and emotional understanding, self-regulation, and conversational. As you alluded to at the beginning, it’s interesting that social cueing, many neuro-typicals we just take for granted, is a characteristically challenge areas for individuals on the spectrum. Part of that is neurological, some is cognitive, and certainly manifests itself as a social disorder.
But that’s how it started. I’m very pleased to share that we are now in 32 states. We are in four provinces in Canada. And we are in every English-speaking country in the world. This resonates. I’ll share a little bit later just some of the impact that has been generated. It is a wonderful tool. It’s not a panacea, the silver bullet, if you will, but it is an amazing tool because of its engagement and the design.
I’ll share really quickly. Milo speaks at 20 percent slower than you or I. every facet of his design, from his hair to his fingers to his size, were all clinically tested to remove as many of the obstacles or barriers that an individual on the spectrum may encounter when engaging. To our surprise, we have worked very effectively with about 60 to 70 percent of children on the spectrum. Because it is a spectrum, we’ve worked with nonverbal, low functioning, to very high functioning individuals on the spectrum. It has been something to watch.
JOSH ANDERSON: Without getting too technical, how does Milo interact with the kids on the spectrum?
GREG FIRN: Milo works in concert with tablets. He has a chest plate where we use as many as 1,700 different visual supports. As many of your listeners may know, auditory processing is one of the greatest challenges that individuals on the spectrum face. So with slowing down the speech, accompanied by these visual supports, helps create coherence. Working with tablets, or where able to do is literally over 1500 video vignettes have been shot that actually explain the targeted behavior. Along with auditory processing, with those visual supports and a video modeling, those three pieces work in concert to create a social narrative that helps create understanding. Rather than telling someone, we explain it. When you see how to greet another human, we teach a very simple. Turn, look, smile, and say hi. Those flashcards would actually show on his chest as his modeling and Milo is facilitating this. But then they would see this actually happening with humans interacting with one another. So one of the beautiful design components of Milo is the fact that he never gets tired, never gets frustrated, can repeat himself perfectly every time and over and over again, which we know, especially when you’re working on developing or building new neural pathways, repetition is critical. Milo can repeat those lessons, like I said, over and over again, which is part of the impact that happens in schools.
Schools is the focal area because about 97 to 98 percent of children on the spectrum are being educated in our public schools. You and I can’t we be ourselves perfectly every time, but Milo can. That’s one of the unique designs that has resulted in incredible impact.
JOSH ANDERSON: I can see where that could deftly help, along with the multisensory approach. That can definitely help. You kind of touched on it, but what are all of the skills that Milo can help teach kids with autism?
GREG FIRN: Interestingly enough, the most impact that we see in the first one to four months has to do with self-regulation. Milo actually teaches — because he explains and models appropriate, we are able to teach calm down tools to individuals on the spectrum. This is what is reported to us over and over again, is how quickly it makes sense to students. They may have been in therapy, they may have been working with a behavioral specialist that come more often than not, is telling and trying to model — but again can’t model it perfectly every time. Milo can. Milo eclipse of children and empowers them to actually take control of their own behavior.
Interesting notes. A parent called me and was explained to me, they were driving somewhere, and their child who had been working with Milo started to have a meltdown in the car seat. This would be very familiar to parents of children on the spectrum. The parents very calmly slow down, turned around, and look at her child and said what would Milo do? The student instantly generalized and transferred what they had been working with Milo on and were able to do that. We hear this over and over again.
There is a bit of a story of a young man up in Wisconsin who would greet you by hitting you, biting you, spitting at you, all these things. Worked with Milo for approximately nine weeks and now grates by saying hi, and he says his name.
The skill sets that we started to see early on are the self-regulation or the calm down, which then leads to the more complex which is identifying and responding appropriately to different emotions. Whether it’s social or emotional learning, we will go through what is happy, sad, angry. That goes with the more easier ones to teach, happy, sad, angry. Milo never uses absolutes. He’ll say things like, most people when they are happy smile, or most people when they are sad will frown. Because Milo is facially expressive, he can model what frowning looks like. We are able to teach parts of the face, which is extremely powerful. You can do these in stills of pictures, but when Milo is actually animating it, children engage. We teach parts. Look at my mouth. Look at my eyes. Look at my eyebrows. We will go through the sequence which is systematizing to the strength of many individuals on the spectrum. Milo will model that. Then we actually, like I mentioned earlier because of the visual and video supports and modeling, they actually get to see that. All of a sudden, they start to recognize — which is one of the most powerful data points which we have seen recently, to the level of 90 percent accuracy, students identifying those behaviors or those emotions and then responding appropriately, which, again, is part of the skills that we are trying to build.
Lastly, on compositional dynamics, is how to have a one-way or two-way conversation, is proximity. Milo moves, he walks. You and I and many of your listeners have worked or interacted with individuals that may be too close or too far away, or they don’t do turn-taking when it comes to I ask a question and you respond and you might ask a question in your response. Milo actually teaches that, which is pretty sophisticated and complex. But once we get to that point, we see that 88 to 90 percent accuracy in terms of mastery, and then the generalizing that follows is very powerful.
JOSH ANDERSON: Definitely. I also saw that you guys have a Robots for STEM program. How does that work?
GREG FIRN: This amazing technology that Richard created. As we were sitting, it won’t be a surprise to many of your listeners, on our staff in our office, we have several individuals that are on the spectrum. We also have many individuals that work with us to have children on the spectrum. When we were looking at coding and programming — which, again, it’s a skill set that lends itself to those that can focus, like a neuro-diverse individual can, we started playing around with how can we introduce coding and programming and teach to the strength areas of many individuals with autism? We started with that premise, that we could create coding and programming experience, especially with for those not just with autism but of individuals with disabilities. This is where the intersection of my experience with Richards background connects. I was very fortunate to serve in very rural, high poverty areas. I saw a number of our children that would never have the type of access and opportunity to learn coding and programming. It’s not just about being coders and programmers. It’s really about the skills and what you learn by learning how to code and program that is the most powerful and valuable. So that experience, coupled with Richards design, led us to create something that was really next-generation. It utilizes the technology of the robot but also an avatar, which is an exact replica of the robot with very simplistic, visual block programming that culminates in 96 hours of learning and activities that students, starting as early as grade 3 — some great too, but generally great three — can demonstrate competency in visual programming.
That’s how it started. We’ve been very delighted that we wanted to create not just Milo, but we wanted to create Jet and his twin sister Robin. We have a light-skinned, a dark skinned, and the female robot, which was very dear to my heart and removing as many obstacles, creating solutions to the obstacles that generally present too many learners of colors and certainly our young ladies that are interested in learning coding and programming.
JOSH ANDERSON: Very good. I know it’s been proven many times that if you can see yourself in the design, then it really helps you to be able to see yourself be successful in that. That’s very good that you guys thought about that beforehand, as opposed to that being an afterthought. Also, it’s nice that the program can help anyone with a disability, not just folks on the autism spectrum.
GREG FIRN: We actually stumbled on that. We had a district here in Texas that said, you know, we don’t mind using this with our autistic population, but what we want to do is try it with our other students that have disabilities. To our surprise, we found it on news coverage. We had a local TV station that picked up on it. We looked at it and said, oh my gosh, this is amazing. It’s kind of redefining the community. Part of my — I’ll say vision for the future is where we see neuro-typical partnered with a neuro-diverse student, working with this coding and programming to create not only scripts but also real-life solutions to real-life problems. Because it’s competency-based and is self-cased, the coding and programming experience does not require an individual to teach this that has a computer science background. That’s actually one of the really beautiful parts of the design of this program, is that it doesn’t require that. Students really can learn on their own. We designed it so that and on grade level, below or above grade level learner will have a very similar experience. It’s powerful, very individual. You can do it in a progress based learning environment, but it has proven itself to be very powerful.
JOSH ANDERSON: It sounds like it’s fully inclusive. That’s perfect. You already touched on my next question of what does the future hold?
GREG FIRN: We are extremely excited. Obviously autism and robots for autism with Milo will always be our flagship product line. The STEM piece is certainly — the coding and programming within the STEM environment is something we are excited about. But we are very focused on developing preemployment life skill training curricula utilizing Milo or a robot to be named later that can work with pre-employment job interviewing. Imagine being able to interview with a robot who is nonjudgmental that will speak more slowly but yet provide you the type of feedback that you will need as a potential employee. That’s been a very important area for us, is to look at the economic impact of individuals on the spectrum. You may or may not know this, but the numbers vary between 75 to 80 percent are either unemployed or underemployed. We think we can really assist with that. As you know, companies are starting to demonstrate not only sensitivity but a commitment to neurodiversity because they know what it does for their neuro-typical employee but also the work environment in general. We are very committed and are working with a couple of entities to bring that to life.
JOSH ANDERSON: I’m very excited about that. I came from the world of teaching vocational skills to folks and still work with a lot of individuals are trying to go to school, trying to find the vocational goals. That’s perfect and I love that businesses are starting to realize that more diversity in the workforce and different thinking, the better results you get. That a really help out. A lot of companies and people aren’t really doing that, so this’ll be a great resource for folks.
GREG FIRN: It’s amazing to me that we have some of the powerful people in the United States that are still thinking that, because an individual has autism, that menial type work is only thing they can do. It’s just wrong. That’s why we know, and we work with folks at the Burkhart Center here at Texas Tech. Orange Grover Center in Chattanooga Tennessee is another location where they know that if they can work to the emotional and social understanding, that you’ve got some incredible talent.
I would just finalize it with this. We were approached by a company where the owners are parents of children on the spectrum. They, like the US, are keenly aware of that underemployed or unemployed factor. Generally I share with people, last year in the US we spent $265 billion on autism. But folks don’t understand is that if we don’t address the kind of economic workforce development pieces, the average is about 3.4 million per individual on the spectrum for lifespan cost. That can be halved by just aggressive and early intervention and skill development and treating individuals on the spectrum as uniquely human. That’s what our commitment remains, is that we can do this in a very dignified way, which is in part why we see that self-regulation happen so quickly.
That’s part of the future landscape, and of course continuing to create opportunities for third-party content developers to utilize our technology platform. What I mean by that is that — I’ll use Milo. Milo assist with dyslexia. Milo can assist with other forms of, not just disabilities, but we also have found that Milo works very good with second hand victims of domestic violence. We have done some pilot work with pre-incarcerated youth, mostly in the area of self regulation. We know that Milo has a lot of applications. We are only currently using about 19 to 20 percent of what Milo is capable of. That’s what Richard gets his eyes dilated and his pulse quickening, is just the possibilities of how Milo can impact more individuals.
JOSH ANDERSON: You’ve told us a few, but can you talk about some of the stories about how Milo has affected some individuals?
GREG FIRN: I’ll give one that is more of a grand scale. Are folks in South Carolina just finished their first full year, going into the second year of a pilot in which they achieve some phenomenal results. Some of the stories at the time where they came from the heart and the expansive parents. I’m thinking of a parent of twins both on the spectrum. Neither work verbal or consistently verbal, so I’ll say minimally verbal. After working with Milo for nine weeks, the parent reports back that her children are actually engaging in a conversation. They are completing sentences. They are asking for questions. Another story that really came to mind was a parent he said, up until working with Milo, my child looked at me like I was a piece of furniture. I was just an object. The fact that my child now looks at me and says hi, my name is — and ask a question, mechanism me as a mother, it just brings tears to your eyes. The last one I’ll share with you is sort of amazing. It was reported to me that an individual who had never engaged with their parents, who never said hi mom, I love you, or hi dad, or even to another family member. After working with Milo — I forget the duration of working with Milo, the child actually one they looked at their mother and said mom, I love you. It was — it brings tears to my eyes now thinking of hearing that for the first time as a parent. It’s life-changing.
Every week I hear stories. Educators abound on the stories that they talk about in terms of children beginning to self regulate, which allows them to move children into the more formal education. One last one, if I have time, is out of Spartanburg. They were one of the first entities to implement Milo. This was the years ago. They work with 17 students. They didn’t nine weeks without Milo and 27 weeks with Milo. They saw students move from nonverbal to minimally verbal to vocabulary acquisition to sentence construction. They were able to move three of those 17 students from a self-contained classroom back into mainstream, which allowed them to be with their nondisabled peers. They were able to reduce the number of full-time custodial aids, or a pair of professionals with a child all day because the child couldn’t self regulate. Impact after impact. It was amazing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share that Milo works with small groups and large groups as well. It’s not a robot for every child. It’s a robot that works with many children. You can work with as many that can be scheduled. It reminded me very quickly. Here in Dallas where I am located, working with one of our charter schools, Milo worked in groups of three and reported back to us after nine weeks, 100 percent reduction in aggressive behavior by the students that were working with Milo. That’s a game changer. It’s a game changer for the educators and changes the whole environment. It really fills our passion that we can change the trajectory of these children and that’s what we are committed to doing.
JOSH ANDERSON: That’s amazing. While we have a little bit of time left, how can our listeners find out more?
GREG FIRN: Some of the case studies or examples I gave you are all there, published. You can also see some of the resources I mentioned earlier in the show from University of Texas Dallas. You can also find an executive summary from South Carolina that talks about the 90 percent mastery and generalizing and transference to human interaction. It also has the information that you would ever want from both the parent or an educator or a learner guardian — because we know in some cases we have grandparents or aunts and uncles that are assisting with raising children. is your home for finding a very powerful tool to work with children on the spectrum.
JOSH ANDERSON: We’ll get that put in the show notes. Greg, we look forward to talking to you in the future when new things come out with RoboKind. Thank you for being on the show.
GREG FIRN: Thank you.
BRIAN ANDERSON: Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If you do, call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, or any of our supporting partners. That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
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