One robot is intended to help disabled children. The other is designed to fight a war. Guess which one gets more funding.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

Protruding beach-ball belly, piggly pronounced nose, googly popped eyes: The high-tech toy of tomorrow—and quite possibly the future of pediatric rehabilitation—looks like a young Buddy Hackett.

In just a few minutes, this diminutive robotic comic—ladies and gentlemen, meet JesterBot—will be whirring and working the room: spinning, speaking, flapping his flippers, and, if all goes well, not freezing up with a bad bout of technological stage fright.

For now, though, the resident star of daydreams both financial and medical waits calmly on a toy-strewn shelf in the gadgets-galore “robot room” of AnthroTronix Inc., a private company located in the Technology Advancement Building at the University of Maryland. He’s flanked by an orange-and-blue football that changes color when squeezed, a knobby-wheeled hot rod sent speeding with a hands-off flick of the wrist, and myriad Lego blocks looking to link up. Playtime is strongly encouraged in this whiz-bang wonderland, which looks very much like an accountant’s office slowly being invaded by George Lucas’ Industrial Light + Magic.

Which is not to say that JesterBot is as neat-o fancy as that dandy droid R2-D2. Not yet, at least. Covered top to rump in mangy fur, JesterBot has a cantaloupe-sized yellow head, bulging blue eyes, spatula-long purple flippers, and a big green snout that sits in the middle of his broad face like a moldy California roll. This JesterBot—standing about a foot and a half tall, as wide as a teddy bear—is the second of two such models made by AnthroTronix and was basically duct-taped together just to prove the concept. His parts would be considered state-of-the-art only at Radio Shack.

Still, JesterBot does work (usually), and his all-important purpose is to provide disabled children with engaging and effective physical and mental workouts. They move; then he moves. They speak; then he speaks. It’s as simple as that, really.

Directly across the room, past the blipping computer screens, the snaking vines of wire, the surplus of audio-visual hoo-ha, looms a robot far more handsome and far more sinister: the Tactical Mobile Robot—TMR for short. The TMR is an agile tanklike beast—as long and wide as a medium-sized suitcase—intended for extreme military situations, such as hostage rescue and land-mine sweeping. Preliminary design plans call for the TMR to be operated via the smallest of computers worn on a shirt sleeve, a joystick to fit in the palm of a hand, and a stamp-sized PC screen built into a soldier’s eyewear. It can endure the most rugged conditions: water, fire, bullets. It can reach speeds of 3 meters per second. And it can easily kick JesterBot’s plushy butt.

Visitors to the lab glance at the TMR periodically, not knowing what it is but not asking. This is a wise move: Explicit details as to what the TMR does, and soon very well might do, are closely guarded.

In a telling modern twist, the research and development for the TMR has helped finance a significant portion of the R&D for JesterBot. It’s a rather chilly symbiotic relationship, yes; but in a precarious high-tech funding environment, sometimes you gotta take what you can get—even when it’s from the Department of Defense, not exactly the leaders in therapeutic devices for children.

Today, however, is not about war games. Or secrets. Or how AnthroTronix needs to raise between $3 million and $5 million to get JesterBot to market—and keep playtime alive.

Today is about that good-natured JesterBot and his 5-year-old playpal, Kalonji Griffin, who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy.

Preparing for this afternoon’s demonstration, JesterBot’s casually dressed creators—all young, all tireless, all smarter than you—are attempting, as always, to blend the beauty of science fiction with the blemished facts of life. Many of these hipster eggheads have recently abandoned comfortable gigs in academia to take the biggest risk of their lives.

Leading the group is Corinna E. Lathan, Ph.D., the company’s 33-year-old founder and CEO, a tornadic force of nature who giggles at the daunting notion of raising millions of dollars to keep her company afloat. Her husband calls her “an odd combination of being organized and disorganized.” A co-worker calls her “an articulate visionary.” At this praise, she giggles, as well.

The pixie-ish Lathan slips a thin black glove—that is, a glove with unseen sensors stitched into the fingers and the wrist—onto Kalonji’s left hand, then places his right hand on a sensor attached to a green Lego board. She pushes his wheelchair closer to a low table and takes a step back.

As a warm-up for his upcoming jitterbug with JesterBot, Kalonji is about to play Super Mario as it’s never been played before. In order to win, the diminutive video-gamer will have to use the muscles in both arms and both hands—muscles, mind you, that often don’t feel like cooperating.

“Are you ready?” Lathan asks.

“Yeah,” the child answers.

“Say, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” the boy’s mother gently corrects.

But Kalonji just grins up at the TV, lifts the black glove high in the air, as high as he can, and watches Mario hop, hop, hop.

Just like a magic trick.

At AnthroTronix, the next great leap in “gestural interface” technology begins…

Now.

For a young boy who had major reconstructive surgery just a few months ago—or, as his mother puts it, had the bones in his legs “cut in half, rotated, then put back together”—Kalonji Griffin sure does smile a lot.

Maybe that’s because the tiny, fragile child has been dealing with, and begrudgingly getting used to, such painful reminders of his affliction since he was 12 months old: the countless operations, the physical therapy three times a week, the constant nagging from Mom to lift his head, sit up straight, move his arms. Born four months premature, Kalonji suffered a severe brain hemorrhage that resulted in a neurological disorder that affects the development of muscle tone and control.

“When he was born, the doctor said he would never walk, never talk, never lift his head, never recognize his family,” says Amy Griffin, Kalonji’s mother. “They said the best thing to do was to let him die. Under her breath, the doctor asked if I wanted to keep feeding him. Needless to say, I didn’t believe what they were saying.”

At that, Griffin gives a proud-mother chirp: “He is the coolest thing.”

Kalonji Griffin: The coolest thing in a factory of cool things.

As far as he’s concerned, Kalonji—today bragging about his Game Boy collection, lifting his head to gawk at all the gizmos, gushing to his 9-year-old sister, Victoria, about robots, robots, robots—has come to AnthroTronix to have a little fun. He’s here for Super Mario, and the remote-control car, and that cool JesterBot.

Kalonji no longer requires special education at school; his mind works more or less the same way as any game-loving, birthday-obsessed 5-year-old’s. But because of the cerebral palsy, his muscles need to be worked constantly to keep from becoming tight, spastic, useless. The folks at AnthroTronix want to make it a lot more fun, and a lot more effective, for Kalonji to get that much-needed exercise—exercise that will allow him to do such things as feed himself and operate his wheelchair and walker independently.

Lathan watches Kalonji, dressed in blue sweat pants, blue shirt, and snazzy Hot Wheels sandals, guide Mario through the pitfall-laden wilds of Yoshi’s Island. “If kids have difficulty with range of motion, you can put the sensors in different places,” says Lathan, often stopping the game to recalibrate the sensors—to coordinate them with the child’s movements—on a thin blue Sony laptop.

Sometimes, it’s not so easy for Kalonji: He’ll lift his arm, but it won’t be high enough. When that happens, Mario will simply stare at a juicy apple, Kalonji will simply stare at Mario, and nothing will happen. But no one helps him. Either Kalonji does it on his own or Mario goes hungry.

And it’s often not so easy for the folks at AnthroTronix, either: sensors jamming, computers breaking down, trying to change the world on a bootstrapped budget. Sometimes, no one seems to be helping them, either.

“This will be more challenging for you, Kalonji,” Lathan says, recalibrating yet again and restarting the game. “This will make you smart. Well, smarter than you already are. If that’s possible.”

Kalonji wants Mario to jump, so, again, he lifts that black-gloved hand. But Mario stays put, and a bunch of bad dudes pounce on him in a lightning-quick swarm. For Mario to get the goodies, Kalonji needs to use both hands, lift higher, push harder.

“Sometimes I mess up my Mario, too,” Kalonji sighs.

“Try to jump and move forward at the same time,” Lathan says.

Lifting, pushing, smiling: This time, Mario bowls over the villains—one, two, three—and chows down on some tasty bonus snacks. Unfortunately, in the midst of this victory, the game freezes up, putting a serious whammy on Kalonji’s momentum.

Technology, as even this youngster can tell you, can be such a buzzkill.

“It’s doing it again,” Kalonji sings, amused by the dysfunction.

“Give him a couple of hours and he’ll tell you what’s wrong,” says his mother, as the AnthroTronix techies tinker. “[Video games] are the only things he can play with his peers and be on equal ground. He carries his Game Boys with him at all times. And when he pulls them out, you should see the kids gravitate.”

With all the stop-and-start action, Kalonji is growing bored with Mario. There’s really no surprise at what he wants to play with next.

JesterBot is on.

“JesterBot just had major surgery, too,” Lathan says, pulling the well-worn furry fat guy off the shelf and putting him on the floor.

Lathan then grabs two puffy multicolored armbands, which resemble cheerful blood-pressure cuffs, and wraps one of them around Kalonji’s outstretched forearm. The other armband she puts on Kalonji’s cousin Ashley, who also will be able to control some of JesterBot’s movements. Lathan then grabs a similarly decorated floppy hat and tugs it on herself. The armbands and the hat are called “wearables,” each loaded with myriad sensors that send messages to the robot.

Lathan flicks a switch under JesterBot’s rear end. The robot jerks. Then waits. Staring.

“Kalonji, raise your arm up!” Lathan says.

The child, his eyes never leaving the robot, the smile never leaving his face, does just that.

And JesterBot takes off.

With so many human arms and heads lifting and bobbing—up, down, up, down, up, down—JesterBot is soon zipping all over the place. Equipped with an advanced central processing unit, the robot careens around the room, causing onlookers to step aside, jump back, and shriek at the mayhem.

His head wobbling, his hindquarters shaking, his flippers flapping, JesterBot makes a hungry move for Ashley’s ankles, and the young girl just about jumps out of her seat. Who can blame her? When a robot—fuzzy or not—is beelining toward you, you tend to give the thing some room.

JesterBot can also be programmed to play Simon Says, in which he makes the first move and then the child repeats the motion; the child’s reactions can be electronically reported via a data port to a PC, from which a physical therapist can determine future home therapy. JesterBot has a speaker hidden inside his body; by using a microphone, children can tell stories through the robot, working on their communication skills. And AnthroTronix is also developing the JesterWeb, “storytelling software” that will allow kids to create adventures on a computer program and have JesterBot act out “emotional cues” in the text.

Plus, Lathan says, “the next time we see you, you’ll be able to use JesterBot to pick things up.”

“Then Mom wouldn’t have to worry about cleaning!” Kalonji shouts.

He does housework: even more reason to like JesterBot.

“There aren’t enough pediatric centers in the area, especially for children with disabilities,” says Griffin. Having JesterBots in homes “would motivate kids to get those muscles moving. We have to do our stretches every day. And if you put your arm up high enough, and the robot does something really cool, that’s a great motivator. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s funny-looking. I’m hoping they’ll do something with it at school.”

Griffin pauses and adds: “It’s really cool when we can use [technology] for good, and for a better quality of life for our children, and not to conquer the world.”

Lathan is enjoying today’s playtime as much as her guests. “We get to play all day. Not get paid for it,” she says, not-so-subtly referencing her company’s start-up woes, “but we get to play all day.”

The CEO of AnthroTronix informs Kalonji that JesterBot wants to say a few words. Lathan, with microphone in hand, then sneaks out of the room and into the hallway. Everyone gathers close to the robot. Everyone leans in to listen.

Too bad investors aren’t listening, as well.

Cori Lathan is who you wish you were when you’re sacked out on the couch, unable to escape the irresistible force of Funyuns and MTV.

“Cori was speaking at 7 months old: ‘Mommy,’ ‘Daddy,’ ‘drop,’ and ‘dirt,’” says Janet Lathan of the oldest of her four children. “When she was just 2 and a half, she was trying to cross the street on her own. At age 5, she demanded her own alarm clock; she didn’t trust us with getting her up for school. She was a very unusual child.”

Sitting in a booth at R.J. Bentley’s Filling Station, a grungy student hangout just off the College Park campus, Lathan is framed by wings. Not real wings, of course—they’re etched into the glass of the booth behind her—but the image seems apt. The go-go-go Lathan looks as if she could be 23, just another senior searching for cheap eats and cheaper beer. For a woman who works seven days a week and has been traveling the world almost nonstop lately in search of money, she has a healthy tan and puckish energy. Perhaps this is because she’s a vegetarian (“I miss brats,” she admits). Perhaps it’s because she never watches TV (“Except for The Simpsons and Star Trek,” she allows). Perhaps it’s because she manages, despite that daunting workload, to lead High Adventure Boy Scout trips and play soccer and swim and bike and run and goof around with her two mutts at home (“Rocky and Rascal,” she beams).

Or perhaps it’s because Lathan—married for seven years to an optical engineer who admittedly doesn’t even try to keep up with her—always seems to get what she wants, no matter the obstacles.

“I’ve never heard her say she’s exhausted,” says David Kubalak, Lathan’s husband. “Sure, I’ve heard her get frustrated at the job, get frustrated at certain people, certain things. But she’s usually successful at whatever she does. And it’s not just luck. It’s part of why I like being with her.”

“I have a short attention span,” Lathan says, by way of explanation. “I’m always moving on to other things.”

Survive, advance, steamroll the competition: the story of her life. Lathan went to high school in Waynesboro, Pa., “where only 20 percent of the kids go on to higher education. There are very few things that I got out of high school.” During her first year at Swarthmore College, where she started a women’s rugby team, she “barely squeaked by” and “failed out of physics. Well, I probably had a C, but I dropped the class. Second semester, I got a D in biology. Thank God it was pass/fail.”

Nevertheless, she received a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology and mathematics from Swarthmore and went on to receive a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics, as well as a doctorate in neuroscience, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leaving Boston after getting her Ph.D., Lathan aimed south for Washington, D.C., landing a job as an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the Catholic University of America and doing research at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, where she would first work with robotics technology—and first start pondering high-tech applications to help disabled children.

“I didn’t really know I was a biomedical engineer until I was out looking for jobs,” she says. “No one knows how to categorize AnthroTronix, and that’s kind of the story of my life: ‘What are you?’”

While at Catholic, Lathan learned about research being done by Allison Druin and Catherine Plaisant, who, at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, were developing a robot that could tell stories to children. That discovery, combined with her weariness with the politics of academia, convinced Lathan that it was once again time to head for new territory.

Lathan’s original impetus for launching a company “was a robot tool kit. Kinda like Mr. Potato Head.” This idea morphed into a possible exploration of “telepresence,” a scheme in which a bedridden child could, for example, put on goggles and a sensor glove to drive a robot around the house and “see” what his mother was doing. And this idea was in turn distilled down to the basic essence of JesterBot.

To launch AnthroTronix, in July 1999, Lathan snagged funding as a subcontractor for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is underwriting work on TMRs at a number of public and private labs. She landed various other R&D contracts as well, including one from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center for a project that will enable military police officers to use wireless technology to stealthily send commands via hand gestures. The combined start-up funding totalled more than $800,000.

“Technology should be enabling,” Lathan says about her adventures in “gestural interface,” which is basically the concept of moving a finger in a glove and wirelessly operating a robot. It should work the same, “whether you’re a man in a trench trying to find where the hostages are or a child with a disability trying to operate a video game.”

Man in a trench, child with a disability: The practical engineer’s logic sees the similarities between the two. And in Lathan’s world, it’s not a moral quandary that the TMR—a war machine—is helping spawn JesterBot—a rehabilitative toy. It’s an engineering breakthrough.

To achieve her robot dreams—and to make sure her company would have an advanced technological edge—Lathan recruited someone with extensive knowledge of both artificial intelligence and neural network software for robot navigation.

That this someone was not a social-misfit tech nerd but a gung-ho, wild-eyed former Marine commando willing to house AnthroTronix’s entire engineering staff in his home was even better.

Jack Maxwell Vice is talking about his baby: a 1975 Porsche 914. Her name is Betsy.xx

“I wanted a pristine 914 Porsche, so I went out to Arizona, outside of Phoenix, found one, and towed it back,” the 33-year-old Vice explains.

“Found” a Porsche, however, is an understatement. There was a method to his motor mania: Vice first consulted a map, calculated where in the States there was less than 10 inches of annual rainfall—parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona—and then commenced his search there. “Yeah, so I found a sweet ride, towed it back, and stripped everything out of it. I’m rebuilding it with a motor out of a 1990 Porsche 911 and a lot of racing parts and fiberglass. It’s going to be extremely light.

“The attraction to cars is engineering-based and speed,” he adds. “You get intellectual stimulation from optimizing power.”

Vice—official title at AnthroTronix: co-founder and chief information officer; unofficial title: ‘Botman—can talk cars for hours; he also has an MR2 (“winter driver; good gas mileage”) and a Volkswagen van (“I can take everyone to work”). Get him started on JesterBot and the TMR and warfare technology, however, and prepare to nod your head like a dumbass and hope you understand half of it.

“Cori wanted to do robotics for children for a long time, and I was involved in autonomous mobile robots at College Park, at the computer science department,” says the smooth-pated Northern California native. “She heard from a mutual friend that I was doing that, so she came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you come work with me, bring your skills, and fulfill my dream.’ And I said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ It sounded like fun stuff.”

If AnthroTronix can raise enough money, that “fun stuff” will get even wilder.

“I’d love to put a significant brain [artificial intelligence] in JesterBot…try different behaviors, see which ones are more fun or more therapeutic,” Vice says. “JesterBot could potentially adapt to the child. Every JesterBot would gain its own individuality, based on the child’s behavior with it. Like a puppy or a dog.”

With JesterBot still in his relative infancy, Vice has been spending a significant chunk of his hours at AnthroTronix going head to head with the company’s other robot—the far less friendly one.

“Right now, I’m mostly working on the Tactical Mobile Robot, the military robotics project, and that’s extremely challenging….The handheld computer that we’re programming [for the TMR] is like a souped-up Palm Pilot: color screen, 206 megahertz processor, which is pretty fast for a handheld. I may use that handheld, strip it down to its innards, and use it as the brain for JesterBot.

“[The two robots share] similar fundamental technology, whether the robot’s in your living room or on the battlefield,” Vice continues. “The difference is not really in its guts; the difference is more in its exterior, whether it’s armor-plated or fluffy. The brains could pretty much be the same, provided that the military one would have to be a lot more ruggedized, be able to take impact.”

“[The TMR] has to be fully autonomous at times,” Vice explains. “To control that thing all the time would take too much cognitive load [for a soldier]. You want it to be able to do things without you micromanaging it. You’re not going to worry about that stupid thing if you’re being shot at. It just becomes some piece of hardware that’s worth a lot less than your life.”

Vice says that the robots currently being used to, say, sniff out bombs in strange cars parked near the White House are “tethered by a communication line, have no smarts onboard, are strictly remote-control.” Older versions of the TMR are currently being used to comb through the resultant rubble of the World Trade Center attack, but those robots are directed via laptops. Vice’s TMR could be commanded solely by “wearable computers.”

But he can’t say much more. “I just don’t know how much I can talk about TMR, really. It’s not technically classified, but…”

Vice, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1987 to 1993, joining the military straight out of high school, says that robots on the battlefield are inevitable.

“There’ll come a time when there won’t be many humans on the battlefield. There’ll be robotic tanks,” he says. But, he adds, “it’ll take a long time to make infantry obsolete. Say a commander wants to go in, after we’ve taken a city, with a bunch of robots…I can’t see a commander feeling safe stepping foot in that city without there being human troops. ‘Oh, the robots say it’s safe? Sure.’”

And finally, because you just have to ask: How would Vice’s robots do on BattleBots, the TV show featuring fiendish robots with names such as Atomic Wedgie, Drill-O-Dillo, and Rammstein carving up each other to the death?

“JesterBot would get shredded,” he says. “How would a Furby do, you know?”

Then Vice gives a sly little grin: “The TMR robot would fare a bit better.”

Approximately 6 million school-age children in the United States are estimated to have a learning, speech, or physical disability. The rehabilitative toy market for this demographic is just a fraction of the $20 billion general toy market. Because skeptical venture-capital investors consider JesterBot’s primary audience a niche market, Lathan has been advised to consider pricing the high-end version of the robot, aimed at the clinical market and equipped with physician-specific modifications, at close to $2,500 per unit. But Lathan herself doesn’t want to give up her plan to produce a home-based JesterBot for a far more affordable $500 or less.

This sort of number crunching is just the beginning of her baptism by fire as an entrepreneur.

“As far as I know, there’s nothing out there like JesterBot, and there’s no one working on such a thing,” Lathan says. “But because there’s nothing out there like this, it’s a real battle with venture capitalists. They don’t want to take a risk. We could be on the market by the end of next year. It’s clearly a matter of financing.”

AnthroTronix has licensed the concept of JesterBot, plus three other product ideas including the video-game glove, to Toytech Creations, a small company based in Savage, Md. Toytech’s version of JesterBot—which the company hopes to sell in toy stores—will probably look different from AnthroTronix’s final product and will be fundamentally dumbed-down (no brain, that is) to be more affordable on the mass market. Nor will it necessarily be intended for therapeutic use.

“The combination of movement plus the interaction with children provides limitless fun value,” says Toytech President Judd Nathanson. “The technology is still being developed, but we’re hoping that sometime next year, we’ll have a prototype we can show.

“What Cori has developed is going to make a world of difference for both kids and parents,” Nathanson adds. “It’s limitless what you can do with technology. We’re just happy we’re involved.”

If only the venture capitalists were as understanding.

Lathan, who leads five full-time employees at AnthroTronix, likens the fundraising experience to being back in college: “[Taking exams] had nothing to do with understanding the material, which is one of the reasons why I left academia. It had to do with how well can you figure out what your professor wants to see on that exam. And this is kind of the same thing. [The venture capitalists] don’t invest in the concept, they invest in the company….They invest in the team, and know that the team can roll with the punches, and take advantage of the market opportunities.”

Lathan notes that all of the venture capitalists she’s dealt with thus far have been men—which may or may not have something to do with her struggles.

“Since I’ve never been a male CEO, I really have nothing to compare it to,” she says. “I don’t know if it makes them less intrigued, but it certainly makes me stand out a little more….No matter what their biases are, what their stereotypes are, [you just need] to get them to the table. And once they’re to the table, they don’t care. All that stuff is in the noise.

“If they’re stupid enough to be turned off by—” Lathan cuts herself off.

Carl Pompei, AnthroTronix’s 62-year-old director of business development and the founder of three Silicon Valley companies, joins Lathan on her fundraising missions. He regards Lathan as “a good manager who’s going to be a great CEO.”

Pompei says that he and Lathan “are looking for angel investors right now, seed money. These are the guys who are going to gamble on you….The biotech guys are only looking for larger-scale [outfits involved] in stem-cell research and cloning.”

The recent terrorist attacks have also caused complications for AnthroTronix. “One of our investors was on the 86th floor of Tower 2,” Lathan says, adding that the person was not injured but that future investments are now in question. “We had investors who were supposed to send checks that week…but now everybody wants to see what the economy is going to do. It definitely delayed our ability to move forward.”

(Not to mention seriously hindered Lathan’s ability to claim JesterBot as a carry-on when boarding planes. On a recent trip, an airline official just about flipped when Lathan cracked open her suitcase to reveal the furry menace inside.)

If Lathan & Co. can raise the $3 million to $5 million they need, then the first line of JesterBots could start whirring their way into homes and hospitals in the following 12 to 16 months. But Lathan is realistic. “This is absolutely revolutionary in the world of rehab….But this is a bad time to be looking for money.”

If the money men don’t yet believe in JesterBot, some in the medical community certainly do. Dr. Katharine Alter, a pediatric physiatrist (a specialist in rehabilitation for children) at the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Cheverly, Md., and one of Kalonji’s primary doctors, sees the robot as a major advance in a type of therapy that often leaves children bored and unwilling to exercise.

“The main goal is to get these kids to be independent, so they can learn to control those muscles,” says Alter, who is also on AnthroTronix’s advisory board. “One of the problems we have in therapy is that kids really just want to play, explore their environment, and learn. JesterBot engages children, motivates them, helps them retrain their muscles. I have to deal with children on their level, and with JesterBot, there’s less resentment of a therapist, an adult, telling them what to do.”

Besides the usual touch-your-toes exercises, other modern therapy techniques used to enhance dexterity include flicking a switch to light up a series of Christmas lights. “Yeah, that’s motivating for about two minutes,” Alter says. “JesterBot is cool, fun, stimulating, and has some sophistication to it.”

Listen up: JesterBot has the floor.

“Kalonji, can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” the 5-year-old says in the shyest, tiniest of voices, not quite believing that the robot is chatting him up.

And not quite realizing that the robot sounds very much like Lathan, who is strangely absent from the room.

“Are you having fun today?” JesterBot asks.

“Yeah.”

“Can I have a ride?”

“Yeah.”

This last “yeah,” however, is not too convincing. In fact, it’s become quite apparent that, for Kalonji, messing around with a robot is different from having a full-blown conversation with one—or, for that matter, having one ride in his lap. Simply: The kid is a touch weirded out.

But no matter. It’s soon time for the final game of the day: the remote-control car, operated once again by that sensor-loaded black glove. Kalonji’s task is to plow over a small plastic monster, who looks to be fleeing for his life. Up, down, up, down, up, down: After just a few tries lifting his arm and watching the car zigzag past his target, Kalonji knocks the monster on his rear.

“Right in the butt!” Lathan applauds. Naturally, this causes the young boy great satisfaction.

“We’re hoping that he will walk unassisted one day,” Griffin says of Kalonji’s constant need for exercise. “But if he never goes any further than what he can do now, I’ll still be happy.”

When playtime is over, no one helps Kalonji maneuver his wheelchair over to his mother. No one even makes a move—not his sister, not his cousin, not Lathan.

Instead, Kalonji uses every bit of his remaining energy, and all those same muscles he stretched for Mario and JesterBot and the remote-control car. Slowly but steadily, he gets closer and closer. And closer.

For the entire journey, he’s smiling. Of course. And so is his mother. Especially when Kalonji finally stops in front of her and reaches out. Mom wraps her arms around him and plants a big smooch on his cheek.

“You did so good,” she tells her son. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.