Social Robots: What Are They and How Can They Help Children?

Post by Anna Riminchan

Consumer demand for social robots is increasing, particularly in response to the reduced amounts of social contact children that are getting because of school closures (1). Isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated people’s need for social interaction. Social robots have the ability to listen, emote, and sustain a verbal, or non-verbal conversation with others without spreading disease, making them an increasingly relevant solution to today’s problems. However, it is important to balance the growing excitement for social robots with a careful examination of the ethical issues they raise.

Socially assistive robots are devices intended to provide companionship, education, and healthcare assistance for diverse populations. Current research centers around the use of social robots for ageing populations and children. Social robots’ child-specific uses include support during hospitalization (2,3), support for distress during medical procedures (4), mitigation of the effects of a short-term stressor (5), intervention to improve social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (6,7), and enhancement of education in the classroom (8).

In order to qualify as a social robot, a device must possess three elements: sensors to detect information, a physical form with actuators to manipulate the environment, and an interface that is able to interact with humans on a social level (9). Social robots’ interactions with humans also follow four key rules; (1) social robots have a physical presence, (2) social robots can flexibly react to novel events, (3) social robots are equipped to realize complex goals, and (4) social robots are capable of social interaction with humans in pursuit of their goals (definition adapted from 10).

Today’s social robotics scene contains robots that are available for research purposes as well as some that are sold commercially to children around the world. The present article will present examples of both types of social robots currently being used.

Huggable

Huggable is a blue and green, bear-shaped social robot created by MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital. An image of Huggable from MIT Media Lab’s website is shown. Its goal is to bridge the socio-emotional gap between child and parent stress and human resource supply in pediatric hospitals. Huggable wants to close this gap with its ability to “mitigate stress, anxiety, and pain in pediatric patients by engaging them in playful interactions”, as advertised on its website. It is meant to enhance social interactions between children and their teachers or healthcare providers through its fun communication abilities.

Research with Huggable also touched on the importance of the physical embodiment aspect of social robot interaction. An experiment was performed with children to compare the effects of the Huggable robot to a virtual character on a screen and a regular plush teddy bear. They showed that children are “more eager to emotionally connect with and be physically activated by a robot than a virtual character”(11). This is one of the first studies in 2012 to demonstrate the potential of social robots as opposed to other types of pediatric interventions.

Moxie

In terms of commercially available robots, Moxie is one of the newest social robots on the market. A picture of Moxie from the Embodied Inc’s website is included. Her teal colour, and animatronic face, as well as her teardrop-shaped head, give her a unique, yet modern look. According to the manufacturer’s website, Moxie is designed to “help autistic children learn the necessary social skills they need to thrive in the world and to provide them with understanding and engaging company.” Moxie is about 1500$ with a 40$ a monthly subscription after the first year of adoption. A highly expressive social robot, with an emotive electronic face, Moxie is designed to have large eyes, to promote eye contact in children. She presents the child with weekly missions to encourage learning and exploration of different topics related to human experiences, ideas, and life skills like kindness, empathy, and friendship. Guided meditations and breathing exercises can help children regulate their emotions and develop their self-expression in a positive way. The manufacturer’s website claims that children can read to Moxie to build confidence in their verbal ability and increase comprehension. Unstructured play can also help promote creativity and self-reflection. The website includes a page entitled “ The Science Behind Moxie”, which supports some claims made by manufacturers on Moxie’s abilities with other social robot studies. However, the only formal data available on Moxie’s effectiveness comes from a short, preliminary study done by the manufacturers, featuring a very small sample size. Although more research is needed on her effects on children, Moxie is a promising social robot for at-home use!

Researchers and manufacturers alike are continuing to acknowledge the growing potential of social robots for child wellbeing. With possible benefits like decreasing distress during hospitalization (2,3,4), enhancing interactions with others (6,7), and helping to promote healthy emotional regulation in response to stress (5), social robots have a unique set of capabilities to enhance children’s lives. However, more research is needed to establish the effectiveness of specific commercial social robots before manufacturers can soundly claim the benefits of well-researched robots as pertaining to their own product. Furthermore, the security of sensitive information a user shares with a social robot is currently evolving as consumers become more aware of ethical issues surrounding data privacy. Concerns about data security and sharing are being addressed by some, but not all social robot manufacturers. Of those which address data privacy, many statements are brief, and do not offer the consumer enough to make a fully informed, consenting decision on sharing their personal information. This information comes from an analysis performed in our yet unpublished paper, which addresses the greatly variable quality of claims made by social robot manufacturers. Although social robots show great potential for enhancing child well-being, further consideration of ethical issues, as well as re-evaluation of the quality of claims made by manufacturers is needed to enhance consumer’s experiences.


Anna Riminchan was born in Bulgaria, where she spent her early childhood before immigrating to Canada with her family. Anna is currently working towards a Bachelor of Science Degree, majoring in Behavioural Neuroscience and minoring in Visual Arts at the University of British Columbia. In the meantime, she is contributing to advancing research in neuroscience, after which, she plans to pursue a degree in medicine. In her spare time, you can find Anna working on her latest art piece!


References

1. Jargon J. Pandemic Tantrums? Enter the Robot Playmate for Kids [Internet]. WSJ. [cited 2021 Nov 10]. Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pandemic-tantrums-enter-the-robot-playmate-for-kids-11596542401

2. Farrier CE, Pearson JD, Beran TN. Children’s fear and pain during medical procedures: A quality improvement study with a humanoid robot. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research. 2020 Dec;52(4):328-34.

3. Okita SY. Self–Other’s Perspective Taking: The use of therapeutic robot companions as social agents for reducing pain and anxiety in pediatric patients. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 2013 Jun 1;16(6):436-41.

4. Trost MJ, Ford AR, Kysh L, Gold JI, Matarić M. Socially assistive robots for helping pediatric distress and pain: a review of current evidence and recommendations for future research and practice. The Clinical journal of pain. 2019 May;35(5):451.

5. Crossman MK, Kazdin AE, Kitt ER. The influence of a socially assistive robot on mood, anxiety, and arousal in children. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 2018 Feb;49(1):48.

6. Diehl JJ, Schmitt LM, Villano M, Crowell CR. The clinical use of robots for individuals with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review. Research in autism spectrum disorders. 2012 Jan 1;6(1):249-62.

7. Pennisi P, Tonacci A, Tartarisco G, Billeci L, Ruta L, Gangemi S, Pioggia G. Autism and social robotics: A systematic review. Autism Research. 2016 Feb;9(2):165-83.

8. Belpaeme T, Kennedy J, Ramachandran A, Scassellati B, Tanaka F. Social robots for education: A review. Science robotics. 2018 Aug 15;3(21).

9. del Moral S, Pardo D, Angulo C. Social robot paradigms: An overview. In International Work-Conference on Artificial Neural Networks 2009 Jun 10 (pp. 773-780). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

10. Duffy BR, Rooney C, O’Hare GM, O’Donoghue R. What is a social robot? In10th Irish Conference on Artificial Intelligence & Cognitive Science, University College Cork, Ireland, 1-3 September, 1999. 1999 Sep 1.

11. Jeong S, Breazeal C, Logan D, Weinstock P. Huggable: the Impact of Embodiment on Promoting Socio-Emotional Interactions for Young Pediatric Inpatients. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2018 Apr;21:1-13.

12. Project Overview ‹ Huggable: A social robot for pediatric care [Internet]. MIT Media Lab. [cited 2021 Nov 29]. Available from: https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/huggable-a-social-robot-for-pediatric-care/overview/

13. Embodied Moxie [Internet]. Embodied, Inc. [cited 2021 Nov 29]. Available from: https://embodied.com/

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About Jill Dosso

Jill Dosso, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Neuroscience, Engagement, and Smart Tech (NEST) lab at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital. In her work, she studies the perspectives of persons with lived experience on emerging technologies to support brain health across the lifespan.