What if Kids Perceived Robots as a More Relational Agent?

Social robots and artificial intelligence have the power to become a catalyst for change on a massive scale. They can change how our society functions as a whole. So how do we utilize this power to help us in our daily lives without allowing these robots to become invasive?

There has always been skepticism against artificial intelligence ever since robots started performing tasks that have been historically done by humans. Robots have been used in performing surgeries, creating automobiles, as well as caregiving. Despite all of the help these robots could provide for us, they are still almost seen as a threat. Common doubts stem from the fact that they could potentially take many people’s jobs. This possible issue raises a lot of red flags for people who are already wary of integrating robots into our daily lives. 

Despite these issues, the potential that social robots hold is immense. They can be of social, behavioral, and cognitive support. Robots can also be especially helpful to kids with learning disabilities. Social robots are predisposed to be patient, friendly, and progressive (if designed to be). These qualities are incredibly therapeutic and can be of great help when it comes to something as gradual and subjective as learning and education. 

We all know that using tablets and screens interests a child more than a pen and paper, but is this the best learning method for them? Brain scans have shown that kids with lots of screen time have premature thinning of the cortex. Screen time can also disrupt sleep, lead to obesity, and distract kids from actually learning. When children read on a device with a screen, they retain less information for smaller amounts of time. 

Robots are an alternative and effective solution: they can be more interactive than a tablet, and they work at the student’s pace. However, it’s important to ask: are some robots better than others? What is the best way to use social robots in the classroom? The key is to make them relational.

In an experiment conducted by Jacqueline Kory Westlund, she concluded that the more relational the social robot was, the more significant the impact it had on children. In this experiment, they received feedback from kids who worked with a less relational robot as well as feedback from kids who worked with a more relational robot. 

What makes a robot more relational? 

Children Playing with ROYBI

This answer was defined by characteristics like nonverbal cues (gaze and posture), social contingency (using appropriate social cues), and expressivity (using a more lively voice instead of a flat and monotone one). These characteristics change how the child responds to the robot. Kids are more likely to treat the robot as their friend rather than an educational tool—they would hug the robot and even laugh with it! They were more engaged during activities and were found to take turns, show the robot affection (through hugs as well as dialogue), share stories with it, and mirror the robot’s behavior. 

Kids who played with and learned from the more relational robots were more likely to say “hello” and “goodbye” to it. The children also showed more positive emotions and even compared playing with the robot to playing with a real human child. The robot that was less relational was still friendly and expressive but lacked other, more personal qualities, which showed in the feedback from the students.

Why does it matter if kids find the robot more friendly and relational?

Children who socialized with the robot and treated it like companion retained more information. They learned more words because while they were mirroring the robot’s personal tendencies, they also mirrored its dialogue, promoting language development. This finding is incredibly crucial because it can change how we tackle early childhood development. We cannot and should not underestimate learning through play nor learning through peers–even if that peer happens to be a social robot. 

ROYBI’s goal in creating a relational robot is to make a change in early childhood education. By incorporating positive and customized interactions with children, ROYBI promotes a better overall learning experience, showing the immense capabilities of social robots and artificial intelligence have to improve education.

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