Robot Dragon to Help Kids With Language Skills

Next time your preschooler has a language lesson, they might be getting it from this cute little robotic dragon

2 min read
Robot Dragon to Help Kids With Language Skills

dragon robot

The last few robot dragons that we've been introduced to have done a pretty good job living up to that whole "dragon" mythos, being giant and dangerous and potentially scary. But dragons can also be cute and fuzzy and cuddly, and researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard, and MIT have gotten together and invented a little robot dragon designed to appeal to preschoolers. Fans of celebrity roboticists might recognize MIT's Cynthia Breazeal in the above picture on the far left; also in the pic are David DeSteno from Northeastern (right) and Paul Harris from Harvard (far right).

The robot they're all fawning over is, believe it or not, a descendant of Nexi, MIT Media Lab’s small humanoid. As you can see, it's a robotic dragon, called (as far as I can tell) "dragon robot." The relation to Nexi comes in the form of research by Northeastern's Social Emotions Group, showing that things like eyes and movements have a very significant impact on how people relate to robots, especially when it comes to trust and communication in learning environments. DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, explains:

“Certain non-verbal cues like mimicking behavior to improve rapport and social bonding, or changes in gaze direction to guide shared attention, are central. When kids learn from human teachers, these cues enhance the learning. We’re designing our new dragon robots to be able to have these capabilities.”

Specifically, the dragon robot is designed to teach preschoolers language skills. It's furry, extremely emotive, and the intention is that kids will be able to develop an emotional connection with it. And when they trust the robot like they would something that's actually alive, it'll be a much more effective teacher.

At this stage, the dragon robots are going to undergo some preliminary testing with preschoolers at MIT. Once the researchers figure out what social cues are the most crucial to developing those emotional bonds, the robots will venture out into the world as distance-learning tools to help kids in rural areas learn their shapes, colors, numbers, and fantasy animals.

[ NEU Social Robotics Lab ] via [ NEU ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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