WASHINGTON D.C. — Robots could one day help teach kids in classrooms, suggests research involving droids and toddlers in California.
A robot named RUBI has already shown that it can significantly improve how well infants learn words, and the latest version of the bot under development should also be able to wheel around classrooms, too.
The idea to develop RUBI came to Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, when he was in Japan for research involving robots and his kids were in a child care center.
"I thought, 'Let's bring robots to the child care center,’ and the children got really scared. It was a really horrible experience," Movellan recalled. "But it showed that the robots really got their attention, and that if we got the experience right, it could be potentially very powerful at evoking the emotional responses we'd want."
Movellan and his colleagues started working on RUBI in 2004. Its name is not an acronym. "My daughter, when she was 4 years old, just insisted that the robot had to be a girl," Movellan said.
The robot is about 2.5 feet (75 centimeters) high, "about the same size as the kids, to be less intimidating and improve interactions," Movellan said.
RUBI’s chest holds a video screen, and its head is equipped with cameras, microphones, audio speakers, large plastic eyes and a cheery tuft of plastic that sticks up like a bird's plume.
The researchers designed RUBI to work with 18- to 24-month-old infants. It did not survive its first experience unscathed.
"We were really excited about this beautiful robot arm we put on RUBI," Movellan said. "In two hours, the children had completely destroyed it."
In response, the scientists put sensors in for RUBI to detect any damage "and then cry when it was in danger, and the kids stopped," Movellan said. "If we wanted RUBI to teach, the first thing it had to do was survive."
The kids naturally had to want to interact with RUBI, and the best learning was seen when children spent four or more uninterrupted minutes with the robot.
"We found that subtle changes in the parameters of timing, such as motions of RUBI's head, had huge effects on the interactions we observed between children and the robot," Movellan said. When the researchers got the timing right, making it seem alive, the children followed where RUBI's gaze went and eagerly pointed in those directions.
After 12 weeks with the robot, the children’s knowledge of 10 words that RUBI taught them improved significantly, the scientists found, while the children’s knowledge of 10 words the robot did not teach failed to improve.
"Every time the kids did something right, RUBI would say, 'excellent,' and the kids would be happy, rewarding themselves by saying 'excellent' throughout the classroom," Movellan said. "Also, by learning about social interactions from a computational point of view, we can learn how to enable computers to interact with humans the way we interact with each other."
"RUBI has proven very fascinating," said educational psychologist Barbara Means at the nonprofit research institute SRI in Menlo Park, Calif., who was not involved with the project. "These are some of the most advanced technologies in learning out there right now."
Movellan emphasized the aim of such research was not to raise children using robots. "The role of RUBI is not to replace a person," he said. "It's like a pet. You buy a dog to enrich the life of children, not to replace you. Having said that, RUBI is very good at infinite patience and at remembering every single thing children have done to see how they are improving."
The scientists now are working on a fifth version of RUBI. "It'll be a big change, the first time it can move around freely on wheels," Movellan said. "It'll be able to charge by sitting on a base station, much like a Roomba. Hopefully, we'll have it by May."
Movellan detailed his findings Feb. 18 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington.