Teacher's Little Helpers:
Robots Attend UCSD Nursery School In Research Study
University, Industry Researchers Explore
Educational Applications of Interactive Humanoids
By Inga Kiderra
The children hug RUBI,
but she doesn't hug them back - because as a developing humanoid
robot she still can't.
Credit: Alan Decker
a Robot Using Bayesian Inference, is the evolving creation of
the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California,
San Diego. Together with QRIO, a research platform for advanced
robotic technologies developed by Sony Corporation, RUBI is
attending the Early Childhood Education Center at UCSD as part
of a long-term research study to investigate the uses of interactive
computers in educational environments and to advance the field
of real-time, social robotics.
Led by Javier Movellan,
director of the Machine Perception Lab, the study, known as
the RUBI Project, is a collaborative endeavor with R&D organization
Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories Inc.
Both RUBI and QRIO are
immersed for about an hour at a time in the ordinary activities
of the 10- to 24-month old children of ECEC Classroom 1.
Soft, warm and
pleasantly plump (with a slight tendency to boxiness), the three-foot-tall
RUBI has a head, two arms and is mounted on four non-motorized
wheels for ease of transportation. She has two cameras for eyes
and a third, omni-directional camera, for peripheral vision,
mounted on an antenna on her back. Five high-powered CPUs form
her body; an additional cluster of 24, back at the lab, are
used for experiments that help her learn and progress. Currently,
RUBI is capable of tracking heads and detecting faces and basic
RUBI teaches the children
songs and, through the touch-screen on her belly, presents them
with interactive games so they can learn colors, shapes and
other materials targeted by the developmental profile from the
California Department of Education.
credit: Alan Decker
QRIO, whose names stands
for Quest for Curiosity, is bipedal, about 23 inches tall and
weighs a little over 15 pounds. With state-of-the art autonomous
abilities that include dancing in response to humans, QRIO engages
with the children in play and exercise activities.
"Our team is working
on understanding what it takes to have a natural interaction
between robots and humans," said Movellan, a developmental psychologist
by training. "We have a long way to go yet, but it is our belief
that to be useful to people, in education settings or elsewhere,
robots will have to get better at what humans do brilliantly
without thinking - recognizing a voice, for example, or smiling
back at just the right time."
"We are impressed by
machines doings things that are difficult for us, like
playing chess at the level of a grandmaster," Movellan added,
referring to Deep Blue's historic 1997 win over Gary Kasparov,
"but that's easy for them. What's difficult is what we underestimate
and take for granted, like emotional expression or correctly
picking out an object regardless of light conditions. Genuine
interaction will have to go far beyond computing capacity or
a sterile cognition. It will have to be about forming relationships."
With that philosophy
in mind, the researchers began the project in September 2004
rather "unscientifically," by simply volunteering at the UCSD
childcare center, participating in its day-to-day minutiae and
becoming a part of the community. They introduced the robots
just this spring; QRIO in March, 2005,
and RUBI in April.
credit: Alan Decker
Now the researchers are
attending almost daily, with QRIO playing the role of peer and
RUBI, the role of assistant teacher. The research team is recording
sessions with video cameras and then coding the quality of the
Participating ECEC teachers,
parents and children are helping to guide the study. Early on,
it was thought, for example, that RUBI should be able to identify
the children by name, but they are proving indifferent to the
feature so that development is being dropped.
As the researchers suspected
at the outset, the young children of ECEC's Classroom 1, who
on average have about 50 words at their command, are
unfailingly honest critics. When they get bored, they communicate
unequivocally with their actions: Stop. Turn away. Move on to
whatever person or thing is more interesting.
Fumihide Tanaka, a Sony
Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories Inc. researcher working on
the RUBI Project, has observed that interaction with QRIO is
diminishing over time. He also recently discovered that the
children - who are typically bigger fans of repetition than
either older kids or adults - lost interest in dancing with
QRIO after about a dozen reprises of the same song.
"The next step," Tanaka
said, "is to improve the interactivity of the dance and figure
out how to re-attract the attention of the children."
Next targets for RUBI
- who was designed to be built up by one or two components at
a time, in accordance with results of the field observations
- include being able to point, hold the children's hands and
hug them back.
While the researchers
are puzzling over future technical challenges, Lydia Morrison,
the lead teacher of Classroom 1, says that RUBI and QRIO have
become valuable members of the class.
"It's an enriching experience
for both the children and the teachers," Morrison said. "We
need tools, we need teaching aids in the classroom. RUBI and
QRIO could become real helpers one day. And for now, they are
doing something just as important - they are helping us imagine
new ways of teaching."
The experience is also
fun. Tickling RUBI's sensitive TV belly so she giggles produces
laughs from the people too. And, each time QRIO lies down on
the floor at the end of a session for system shutdown, it draws
a small crowd and a queue forms to cover him with a blanket
and wish him "night-night."
The RUBI Project is supported
by a UC Discovery Grant and Sony Corp. Other researchers on
the project include Kazuki Aisaka of Sony Corp. and Bret Fortenberry
Early findings will be
presented at the IEEE International Conference on Development
and Learning, in Osaka, Japan, July 19-21.
Contingent on renewed
funding, the RUBI Project will begin controlled experiments
next year to see if interactive, social robots are better instructional
tools for the teachers than simple computer kiosks.
Media Contact: Inga Kiderra, (858) 822-0661