Toddlers and Robots Teach Scientists
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Unidentified Children: (Singing) H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P...
DAN CHARLES: They sing all the old preschool favorites at the Early Childhood Education Center at the University of California at San Diego. Then in this video, an otherworldly creature steps into the circle, a machine shaped like a human with two slender legs and glowing blue eyes and a swiveling head.
KATHRYN OWEN: But he wasn't threatening because he was around about the same height as they are.
CHARLES: That's Kathryn Owen, director of the Early Childhood Education Center.
OWEN: He could go up to them. He was looking at them. So - and his arms would move and his legs would move. In fact, what was interesting is often they would mimic his movements.
CHARLES: He was QRIO, a state-of-the-art robot from the laboratories of Sony in Japan. A team of scientists put him in this classroom to see what it would take for the children to treat QRIO as an actual playmate. One of those scientists, Javier Movellan, from the Institute for Neural Computation at UCSD, says at first the children didn't know what to do with him.
JAVIER MOVELLAN: So what we decided to do was to put a very simple system so that the robot would actually giggle if the children touch it. And that really helped break the ice.
CHARLES: Other studies have found that children get bored with the robot after about 10 hours of play. But these toddlers got more and more interested in QRIO even after several months. At first a human controlled QRIO, telling the robot when to dance or turn around. Then for a brief period Movellan and his colleagues programmed QRIO to dance continuously. Almost immediately, QRIO became a social outcast.
MOVELLAN: We lost all our audience, basically. The children just left us.
CHARLES: Javier Movellan says QRIO has given them some clues for what makes an engaging robot. It needs to respond when a child touches it, for instance, but no final answers.
MOVELLAN: That's part of the research. And I have to confess to still not really have grasped what's the magic. I can only tell you that when the magic happen, you know, it works.
CHARLES: Allison Druin, who's head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland, says putting robots into preschool classes can also be a way to explore some pretty profound questions.
ALLISON DRUIN: To understand what makes us human, to understand what our tools and our technologies can bring to an experience, and what is uniquely human to us that you cannot replicate, at least for now, with our technology.
CHARLES: In the classroom, people treated QRIO at times almost like a human. Teachers ordered children not to poke its eyes. They weren't worried about the machine; they worried that children would think if they could do that to QRIO, they could do it to other children, too.
QRIO: Who wants to give QRIO his blanket?
CHARLES: And when QRIO's batteries ran down, the children learned to put it to bed.
QRIO: Night-night, QRIO.
CHARLES: Dan Charles, NPR News.
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