Profile: Christian Wanamaker Teaches Robots to Learn How to Help Students

Christian Wanamaker with a robot.
Christian Wanamaker.
Photo: Movia Robotics

By: Theresa Sullivan Barger

When the smiley-faced robot tells two boys to pick out the drawing of an ear from three choices, one of the boys, about 5, touches his nose. “No. Ear,” his teacher says, a note of frustration in her voice. The child picks up the drawing of an ear and hands it to the other boy, who shows it to the robot. “Yes, that is the ear,” the ever-patient robot says. “Good job.” The boys smile as the teacher pats the first boy in congratulations.

The robot is powered by technology created by Movia Robotics, founded by Tim Gifford in 2010 and headquartered in Bristol, Connecticut. Unlike other companies that have made robots intended to work with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such Beatbots, Movia focuses on building and integrating software that can work with a number of humanoid robots, such as the Nao. Movia has robots in three school districts in Connecticut. Through a U.S. Department of Defense contract, they’re being added to 60 schools for the children of military personnel worldwide. 

It’s Gifford’s former computer science graduate student, Christian Wanamaker, who programs the robots. Before graduate school at the University of Connecticut, Wanamaker used his computer science degree to program commercial kitchen fryolators. He enjoys a crispy fry as much as anyone, but his work coding for robot-assisted therapy is much more challenging, interesting and rewarding, he says.

“I start with a robot that won’t do anything without a programmer and end up with one that allows teachers to run therapies for children,” he says. “That’s very gratifying.” 

Toward the end of graduate school, he worked on a team designing and programming a robot to greet a child and demonstrate yoga moves as part of physical therapy. After graduating, he stayed on at the university as a research assistant. 

One of his first projects involved working as the lead developer writing code for an interactive media wall at Boston Children’s Hospital as a way to give joy and control to sick kids. The multi-discipline team built a series of kid-friendly scenes designed to track movement and react. One scene on the three-story video screen displays grass swaying as someone passes by.

 “That was pretty amazing, especially the response of the kids,” he says.

Meanwhile, Gifford learned from his wife, a primary-school teacher, that the number of children in the classroom with ASD was growing but staffing resources were limited. He worked with Wanamaker to program robots to work with ASD children in school in a nonthreatening way. 

Gifford, a UConn researcher, talks with educators and clinicians about their students’ needs and writes the software architecture to support the array of skills being taught. He conveys this to Wanamaker, and it’s up to him to break down the requirements into programming steps so that teachers can individualize the commands to suit each student’s needs.  

Wanamaker writes software using languages such as Python, Java, C# and C++ so the robot can speak and move to direct the child as well as respond when the child reacts. He not only finds the most common places where bugs crop up, but also tries to find all the edge cases and make it fail. This lets him fix the bugs before the robot is sent to work in a school. In the early days, a team member controlled the robot; today, Wanamaker and the team have to ensure the robot can be controlled by a classroom teacher or other nontechnical person.  

A coder working with robots needs curiosity, patience, and tenacity, Wanamaker says. Movia Robotics is constantly working with new robots that require him to use different languages and operating systems. Programming the robots to interact with individual people is not a straight line. “It’s a bit like herding cats,” he says.

“The thing I find rewarding about coding:  You’re literally creating something out of nothing,” he says. “You’re kind of like a wizard.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 22 January 2020.