Published: 23rd August 2018
Robot named 'Minnie' in the United States is encouraging kids to read more books
Researchers believe companion robots will soon be a fixture in homes, and they wondered if those robots could serve as social learning companions for kids
Scientists have built a robot that can serve as a reading buddy for kids, recommending books and reacting to stories as a human listener would.
The robot, named Minnie, helped children be more excited about books in the two weeks of reading together.
"After one interaction, the kids were generally telling us that, sure, it was nice to have someone to read with," said Joseph Michaelis, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.
"But by the end of two weeks, they're talking about how the robot was funny and silly and afraid, and how they'd come home looking forward to seeing it again," said Michaelis.
Researchers believe companion robots will soon be a fixture in homes, and they wondered if those robots could serve as social learning companions for kids.
They designed a two-week reading programme including 25 books representing a range of reading skill and story complexity and programmed Minnie to be an interested listener.
The children in the study read aloud to the robot, which could track their progress in the book and react to the story -- every few pages or so, especially during important moments in the plot -- with one of hundreds of preprogrammed comments.
"The goal is to try to make it as genuinely conversational as possible. If you were reading a book to me, and I was surprised, I'd say something like, 'Wow, I didn't see that coming,'" Michaelis said.
"When a scary part of the book happens, the robot says, 'Oh, wow, I'm really scared.' It reacts like it would if it had a real personality," he said.
With simple, oversized black eyes on a relatively featureless white globe of a head, Minnie can react and cajole and summarise and appear thoughtful.
It even starts by following an initial introductory read by recommending a good book from its library of titles, which include the familiar Harry Potter and Goosebumps series and genre classics like A Wrinkle in Time.
"That match is crucial. If you're trying to make a social connection with someone, and they say, 'You'd love this book,' and they're totally wrong -- that ruins that credibility," Michaelis said.
"Most kids said the robot did a good job suggesting books to them," he said.
"This idea is in its infancy. But now we know if you really, carefully design this, it can actually sustain interaction and heighten kids' emotional experience with reading," said Bilge Mutlu, computer sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.