Children treat nursery robot as a human

By Roger Highfield

Kids playing with robot
The children play with the robot during the study - 06/11/2007

The key step for robots to help teachers is for the automatons to be accepted by toddlers as social peers who are worth paying attention to - and bonding with - a hurdle that is crossed today in a study published by a team from the University of California, San Diego, UCSD.

Robots are capable of impressive mechanical feats, but the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences now shows that researchers are close to solving more difficult challenge: being accepted as being a peer, at least by the smaller members of our species.

The problem is that most robots do not hold a toddler's attention. The most successful so far have been storytellers, but even these can only hold interest for approximately 10 hours.

Now Dr Fumihide Tanaka of UCSD and colleagues has done much better by introducing a prototype "social robot" into a classroom of toddlers for five months.

A human controller sent very occasional instructions for the robot to turn its head or perform an action like giggling or dancing. The robot was programmed to lie down when its batteries were running out. Often children would put a blanket on him, saying "night-night". Early in the study, some children even cried when he keeled over.

The researchers videotaped the sessions and scored the quality of the interactions, noting that the children's social contact with the robot increased over time.

The children lost interest when the robot was reprogrammed to dance randomly, but the robot again became popular after resuming its original operating mode. "By the last sessions, five months later, they treated the robot as a peer rather than as a toy," the team reports.

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor