Medical Research

Gallaudet University

Laura-Ann Petitto, Melissa Malzkuhn, Arcangelo Merla, David Traum, Brian Scassellati
Washington, DC
December 2014

A team based at Gallaudet University proposes a comprehensive project to advance the science of language learning in infants.  The work builds on a sequence of major discoveries led by principal investigator Laura-Ann Petitto who found that deaf babies are sensitive to the rhythmic patterning of human language’s phonological structure, even though these patterns are conveyed silently on the hands in signed languages.  She assembled a multidisciplinary team from the University of Southern California, Yale University, and the University of Chieti, Italy to apply state-of-the-art technologies to study and to develop methods for enhancing early language acquisition.  The goal is to create a learning tool that provides the core components of language’s rhythmic patterning to babies during critical periods of brain development. The “RAVE,” or “Robot AVatar thermal-Enhanced” prototype, will be placed near a baby’s crib to facilitate sensitivity to language patterns.  The Robot will be interfaced with the thermal infrared imaging that signals when the infant is in a peaked emotional and attentional state and most “ready to learn.”  A baby’s interactive eye gaze with the robot will trigger a virtual human to provide rhythmically patterned nursery rhymes in a visual language, with speech options.  If successful, the work will advance new understanding of the human learning potential and could have a significant impact in the field of human cognitive neuroscience, especially pertaining to language acquisition.

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