AI News, Robots for Kids: Designing Social Machines That Support Children's Learning

Robots for Kids: Designing Social Machines That Support Children's Learning

Ethernet cables trail across the hall to the classroom, where 17 children eagerly await their turn to talk to a small fluffy robot.

The robot (with my voice) replies with an interesting fact about each animal: “Did you know that capybaras are the largest rodents on the planet?” (Yes, one five-year-old’s favorite animal is a capybara.) Later, we share how the robot is made and talk about motors, batteries, and 3D printers.

Children ascribed physical attributes to robots—they can move, they can see, they can feel tickles—but also mental attributes: thinking, feeling sad, wanting companionship.

Although our research robots aren’t commercially available, investigating how children understand robots isn’t merely an academic exercise.

We pay close attention to social cues—like eye gaze, emotions, politeness—whether these cues come from a person…or from a machine.

There’s even a classic book, published by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass in 1996, titled,The Media Equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places.

Among their findings: People assign personalities to digital devices, and people are polite to computers—for example, they evaluate a computer more positively when they had to tell it to its face.

There arenumerous projectsin our group right now focusing on different aspects of this: Robots that help kids in hospitals, robots that help kids learn programming, robots that promote curiosity and a growth mindset, robots that help kids learn language skills.

What design features of the robots affect children’s learning—like the expressivity of the robot’s voice, the robot’s social contingency, or whether it provides personalized feedback?

Despite all the research that seems to point to the conclusion “robots can be like people,” there are also studies showing that children learn more from human tutors than from robot tutors.

Even if we eventually get to the point where robots do have all the necessary human-like capabilities to be like human teachers and tutors—and we don’t know how far in the future that would be or if it’s even possible—humans are still the ones building the robots.

We think robots could supplement what caregivers already do, support them in their efforts, and scaffold or model beneficial behaviors that caregivers may not know to use, or may not be able to use.

For example, one beneficial behavior during book reading is asking dialogic questions—that is, questions that prompt the child to think about the story, predict what might happen next, and engage more deeply with the material.

Past work from our group has shown that when you add a virtual characterto a digital storybookwho models this dialogic questioning, it can help parents learn what kinds of questions they can ask, and remember to ask them more often.

And we’ve found that not only will children learn new words and tell stories with robots, they think of the robots as active social partners.

So we asked: “Which robot do you believe?” Regardless of which robot they had initially chosen (though most chose the contingent robot), almost all the children believed the contingent robot.

This targeted information seeking is consistent with previous psychology and education research showing that children are selective in choosing whom to question or endorse.

As in their interactions with people, children followed the robot’s gaze and watched the robot’s body orientation to figure out which objects the robot was naming.

Instead of playing with the robot once, children got to play seven or eight times.For two months, we observed children take turns telling stories with a robot.

Robots that acted more human-like—being more expressive, being responsive, personalizing content and responses—led to more engagement and learning by the children;even how expressive the robot’s voice was mattered.

When we compared a robot that had a really expressive voice to one that had a flat, boring voice (like a classic text-to-speech computer voice), we saw that with the expressive robot, children were more engaged, remembered the story more accurately, and used the key vocabulary words more often.

All these results make sense: There’s a lot of research showing that these kinds of “high immediacy” behaviors are beneficial for building relationships, teaching, and communicating.

They knew it couldn’t grow or eat like a person, but—as I noted earlier—they happily ascribed it with thinking, seeing, feeling tickles, and being happy or sad.

Sure, the kids knew that a person had made the robot, and maybe it could break, but the robot was a nice, helpful character that was sort of like a person and sort of like a computer, but not really either.

One concern some people have when talking about relationships with social robots is that the robots are pretending to be a kind of entity that they are not—namely, an entity that can reciprocally engage in emotional experiences with us.

People already have significant emotional and social relationships that are non-reciprocal: pets, cars, stuffed animals, favorite toys, security blankets, and pacifiers.

TheOpen Roboethics initiativepolls relevant stakeholders (like you and me) about important ethical questions to find out what people who aren’t necessarily “experts” think: Should robots make life or death decisions?

It may sound straightforward, but it can go a long way toward making sure the robots help and support the people they’re supposed to help and support.

Maybe, as was suggested at one robot ethics workshop, we could create “warning labels” similar to nutrition labels or movie ratings, which explain the risks of interacting with particular technologies, what the technology is capable of, or even recommended “dosage,” as a way of raising awareness of possible addictive or negative consequences.

For managing privacy, safety, and security, we can see what other surveillance technologies and Internet of Things devices have done wrong—such as not encrypting network traffic and failing to inform users of data breaches in a timely manner.

We may need new regulations regarding what data can be collected, for example, requiring warrants to access any data from inside homes, or HIPAA-like protections for personal data.

We may need roboticists to adopt an ethical code similar to the codes professionals in other fields follow, but one that emphasizes privacy, intellectual property, and transparency.

Who knows: We may yet find that children do, in fact, realize that robots are “just pretending” (for now, anyway), but that kids are perfectly happy to suspend disbelief while they play with those robots.

Maybe the next generation of kids, growing up with different technology, and different relationships with technology, will think this whole discussion is silly because of course robots take whatever role they take and do whatever it is they do.

And maybe—through my work, and through opening up conversations about these issues—our future robot companions will make paper airplanes with us, attend our picnics, and bring us ice cream when we’re sad.

Her research focuses on developing and evaluating social robotic learning companions to support young children’s language learning and social and emotional development.

But human-robot relationships aren't authentic!

Fortunately, there's growing international interest in many disciplines for in-depth study into the ethics of placing robots in people's lives.

The Open Roboethics initiative polls relevant stakeholders (like you and me) about important ethical questions to find out what people who aren't necessarily 'experts' think: Should robots make life or death decisions?

Maybe, as was suggested at one robot ethics workshop, we could create 'warning labels' similar to nutrition labels or movie ratings, which explain the risks of interacting with particular technologies, what the technology is capable of, or even recommended 'dosage', as a way of raising awareness of possible addictive or negative consequences.

For managing privacy, safety, and security, we can see what other surveillance technologies and internet of things devices have done wrong—such as not encrypting network traffic and failing to inform users of data breaches in a timely manner.

Who knows: we may yet find that children do, in fact, realize that robots are “just pretending” (for now, anyway), but that kids are perfectly happy to suspend disbelief while they play with those robots.

Maybe the next generation of kids, growing up with different technology, and different relationships with technology, will think this whole discussion is silly because of course robots take whatever role they take and do whatever it is they do.

And maybe—through my work, and through opening up conversations about these issues —our future robot companions will make paper airplanes with us, attend our picnics, and bring us ice cream when we're sad.

Let Robots Teach Our Kids? Here's Why That Isn't Such a Bad Idea

In part, robots are great tutors for language and other primary school subjects because they're the epitome of patience.

Scientists in Japan found that children learned English vocabulary words better when robots made mistakes and the children had to correct their mechanized study partners, likely because doing so boosts self-confidence and reinforces existing knowledge.

Though there's little evidence that interactions with robots will stunt children's emotional and social growth, some experts are concerned that children may develop a kind of master-servant relationship with robots that then translates into their interactions with people.

That is, if robots are programmed to follow orders and are unable to experience pain and explain that feeling to children that may bully them, will this affect what children believe to be socially acceptable behaviors?

Yet, while these issues are important to consider, various social and communicative technologies — including robots — are generally improving people's lives rather than harming them, Admoni says.

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