Robots and behavior analysis

By Dr. Rick Kubina, BCBA-D | CentralReach Director of Research

When someone says “robot,” what thoughts come to mind? Do you think of one of your friends, or yourself, breaking out the robot on the dance floor? Or perhaps you recall your favorite sci-fi robots like R2-D2, WALL-E, or my first favorite Robot (Lost in Space). Maybe you went with robots appearing at manufacturing plants for cars, computers, or warehouses like at Amazon? As a behavior analyst, did you think of robots as a useful tool to help clients? If not, you soon will!

Therapeutically, robots can support people in several ways; thus, assistive robotics (AR) has emerged. Robots can perform a wide variety of tasks in someone’s home to help them live independently and support their well-being. For example, household robots can vacuum (e.g., Roomba), mow the lawn (e.g., Robomow), or even iron a shirt (e.g., Dressman). Robots can also help with rehabilitation, care for the elderly, and a variety of other personal and family activities.

Another class of AR robots growing in popularity falls under the category Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR). SAR refers to intelligent, socially interactive machines that assist through social means (Matarić, 2017). These robots can correspond with people through voice interactions and can monitor interactions and activities. Furthermore, robots can coach and motivate people to engage in specific tasks.

For people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a growing database demonstrates the usefulness of SAR. For example, a study examined KASPAR, a humanoid robot with a motorized torso, arms, neck, face, video cameras in each eye, and a microphone and speaker. The research focused on incremental development of a social skill over a short period. The therapy session combined social stories and applied behavior analysis. The results indicated enhanced social communication skills and increased focus and attentiveness (Silvera-Tawil & Brown, 2019).

Other research studies demonstrate increased engagement, higher levels of attention, and the improvement and development of critically important social behaviors such as joint attention and spontaneous imitation (Pakkar, Clabaugh, Lee, Deng, & Matarić, 2019).

Robots have two significant advantages when used therapeutically. First, people react differently to copresent creatures compared to video-based agents like chatbots or animated characters (Abbasi, 2017). And second, as social beings, people respond to social influence. Robots entice interaction, and they can perform a wide range of behaviors that exert social influence.

Another benefit robots offer coincides with the limited ability of professionals to serve the needs of all the people with ASD. The CDC indicated ASD prevalence rose and now occurs at 1 in 54 children (~19 births per 1,000). At the time of this blog, 44,025 BCBAs have obtained certification. Yet, the clients seeking services outnumber the available resources. Robots can deliver lessons programmed by BCBAs to maintain and enhance what the BCBA does with the client during intervention sessions.

Kebbi illustrates an example of SAR. Kebbi has artificial intelligence, configurable software for lessons, and hardware technology that offers different facial expressions, expressive body movements, and personalized communicative interactions. Robots like Kebbi can assist behavior analytic interventions as a means of delivering content, or serving as a reinforcer or data collection device.

Robots will continue to grow in their use and acceptance in therapy and education. By combining the knowledge contained within behavior analysis with robots, behavior analysts have a new exciting means for accelerating outcomes and helping people reach their potential.

About the Author

Dr. Rick Kubina, BCBA-D

CentralReach Director of Research

Richard M. Kubina Jr., Ph.D., BCBA-D is a Professor of Special Education at The Pennsylvania State University and teaches courses on methods for teaching reading, behavior analysis, and experimental design. Rick graduated from Youngstown State University where he had Steve Graf as an advisor and then received a Masters and Ph.D. from The Ohio State University under John Cooper.

Rick conducts wide-ranging research in the area of Applied Behavior Analysis and Precision Teaching. He also served as the editor of the Journal of Precision Teaching and Celeration. He has dedicated his professional career to helping behavior change agents such as teachers, behavior analysts, and other helping professionals efficiently change behavior through effective teaching and measurement such as Precision Teaching. Rick co-founded a software called Chartlytics. Chartlytics merged with CentralReach where Rick has assumed the role of Director of Research.

At CentralReach, Rick explores how technology can accelerate superior outcomes for all those seeking to engender professional and personal success.

Read more of Dr. Kubina’s publications.


Abbasi, J. (2017). Socially Assistive Robots Help Patients Make Behavioral Changes. JAMA, 317(24), 2472–2474. Https://

Matarić, M. J. (2017). Socially assistive robotics: Human augmentation versus automation. Science Robotics, 2, 1-2.

Pakkar, R., Clabaugh, C., Lee, R., Deng, E., & Matarić, M. J. (2019). Designing a Socially Assistive Robot for LongTerm In-Home Use for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Paper presented at the 2019 28th IEEE International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN).

Silvera-Tawil, D. & Brown, S. A. (2019). Cross-collaborative approach to Socially-Assistive Robotics: A case study of humanoid robots in a therapeutic intervention for autistic children. In O. Korn (Ed.) Social robots: Technological, societal and ethical aspects of human-robot interaction (pp. 165-186). Springer.