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MIT’s DragonBots are Evolving to Teach Young Kids Different Skills

dragon-hugWhen MIT introduced Kombusto in 2011 (their robot companion designed like a small, furry dragon), his primary function was to teach language skills to preschoolers.

With its furry exterior and extremely emotive personality, the intention was that kids will be able to develop an emotional connection with it. And when they would trust the robot like they would something that’s actually alive, it would be a much more effective teacher.

Since then, the Personal Robots Group at MIT has been doing a substantial amount of research and experimentation to figure out how best to utilize the robot to productively interact with children. Their projects are collectively known as DragonBots and their goal is to develop “personalized learning companions” for children.

Check out this video of their latest DragonBot—Parle—a robot that is already effectively teaching children how to learn and tell stories!

So what exactly is DragonBot? The robots aren’t like Watson, the all-knowing IBM computer from Jeopardy fame; according to IEEE Spectrumit’s not a primary source of knowledge that just feeds facts and information to whoever is playing with it. Instead, DragonBots are intended to help with the process of learning itself, encouraging kids to be interactively engaged in whatever they happen to be learning about.

Believe it or not, these robots are designed with what’s known as “Wizard-of-Oz” (WoZ) control. Parents or researchers were secretly (unknown to the kids) controlling the robots from behind the scenes during the development phase. This is all fine for research, but in order for DragonBots to actually work with a significant number of kids outside of the lab, the bots are going to have to learn to be autonomous.

This and other hurdles are ahead for the Personal Robots Group. Even though the DragonBots have some skills already, they will need some optimization and robustness before being released to the kids. But these DragonBots are already making some headway with teaching kids on their own, for example, another robot—Pico—teaches young kids how to make colors.

The MIT Personal Robots Group, led by famed roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, is already looking to the future with even more sociable robots. Their plan is to introduce these DragonBots to preschools around the nation to help young children learn about how to learn in the classroom.

These robots are more than just electronic teachers—they’re curious companions to young children that are coincidentally teaching children how to be curious and resourceful. What more could you ask from a robot?

photo credit: IEEE Spectrum

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