'Socially assistive' bots to help kids read, exercise, and more

The National Science Foundation awards $10 million to a team led by researchers at Yale to develop bots that help kids physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

What if kids with special needs had their own robot to work with them every day in school, guiding them toward long-term educational goals that develop not only their cognitive and social skills but also healthy habits such as exercise?

Maja Mataric, co-principal investigator who serves as the vice dean for research and professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, wants to endow robots with the ability to help people with special needs. Philip Channing/University of Southern California

A team of 17 principal investigators from Yale, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Southern California think that with their expertise in computer science, robotics, educational theory, and development psychology, they can do just that.

So does the National Science Foundation, which just handed the team a $10 million Expeditions in Computing award -- one of the agency's largest -- to develop said bots over the next five years.

"At the end of five years we'd like to have robots that can guide a child toward long-term educational goals, be customized for the particular needs of that child, and basically grow and develop with the child," Yale computer scientist and project leader Brian Scassellati said in a school news release. "We want the robot to be the equivalent of a good personal trainer."

Scassellati is quick to suggest that these bots won't replace actual human teachers and caregivers but will serve as supplementary instructors in settings where fewer children are getting the individual attention they need. The team expects each robot to be able to engage a child for a year.

How much this new breed of "socially assistive" robots will cost to produce and maintain remains to be seen, as is how schools, day care centers, and families will afford whatever the cost turns out to be. For now, the team is focused on the technical and pedagogical hurdles the challenge presents.

The National Science Foundation's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering also announced three other $10 million Expeditions in Computing awards for a total of 14 grants since its inception in 2008, including a project out of MIT that aims to let people design and print their own 3D bots .

About the author

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.

 

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