DIP: Collaborative Research: Social Robots as Mechanisms for Language Instruction, Interaction, and Evaluation in Pre-School Children

Cynthia Breazeal, MIT (Award Details)
David DeSteno, Northeastern University (Award Details)
Paul Harris, Harvard University (Award Details)

This project is leveraging emerging technologies in social robotics with recent findings from social, developmental, and cognitive psychology to design, implement, and evaluate a new generation of robots that is capable of interacting with and instructing young learners (ages 3 through 6) in a truly social way. The robot incorporates signals that the mind implicitly uses to ascertain another’s intentions, motivations, and affiliations (e.g., motor mimicry and synchrony, affective cues, gaze direction), making it capable of serving as a true embodiment of a human instructor. The robotic platform can be controlled remotely, through a direct and proximate connection or a remote, Internet-based operator interface. As such, the system can be placed in several different environments, ranging from a child’s home to medical areas where issues of mobility or immunosuppression make it difficult for direct interaction with instructors. Research is aimed at better understanding children’s concepts of robot mind and of robots as agents, uncovering mental operations behind learning new words, and adding to what is known about the added value (if any) of non-verbal utterances to understanding, communication, and collaboration.

Emerging research has identified the acquisition of early language and vocabulary skills primary predictors of later academic success. Impoverished vocabulary upon entering kindergarten strongly predicts poor subsequent academic performance. Accordingly, the use of technologies designed to build vocabulary during the preschool years is key to facilitating many types of learning. Interactions with a robotic language partner are expected to have particularly important ramifications for children with compromised opportunities to interact regularly with attentive, nurturing caregivers willing and able to foster their vital socio-intellectual developmental needs. In addition, the rationales, artifacts, and cyber platforms and infrastructure created for this project could lend themselves to a broad range of design extensions, such as providing opportunities for children who are learning English as a second language to participate in English-language-based social activities, outreach to rural areas where children have infrequent access to social activities, supporting children of deaf parents, and assessing/assisting children with pragmatic language impairments.

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