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Your Kid's New Reading Buddy Could Be a Robot
By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 22, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- An interactive robot named Minnie could help make your child an active and happy reader, a new study claims.

Minnie is programmed to respond with thoughtful comments as kids read to it. The robot also makes human-like eye contact and engages in idle movements, creating the illusion of an active reading companion.

Kids between the ages of 10 and 12 who read with Minnie said the robot helped them better understand the book. They also reported feeling motivated to read more often than children in a control group without a robot.

"They liked that the robot was there and listened to them and was a companion, but also [was] sort of really relaxed in its approach," said lead researcher Joseph Michaelis, a Ph.D. student in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education.

"The robot presents this nonjudgmental other in their lives, and that really mattered," Michaelis said. "They felt that allowed them to be in this safe place to improve, whereas with an adult they often found these adults would stop them if they mispronounced something or corrected them."

Standing a little over a foot tall, Minnie is equipped with a moveable head and eyes and an embedded camera in its chest.

The robot uses facial recognition to locate the child and establish eye contact, and incorporates random idle movements of the eyes and head to appear more lifelike.

"If you get an eye gaze when you're talking with someone, they have a pretty consistent pattern of looking at you, making eye contact while you're speaking, and at moments look away," Michaelis said. "You don't stare someone down while you're talking with them."

At the start of each reading session, Minnie reminds the child of the book they've been reading and the last page number. The child can keep reading the book or switch to a new one, with Minnie offering suggestions based on his or her interests and reading ability.

The books provided to kids contained scannable tags, Michaelis said. As the kids read, they would scan these tags into Minnie's chest camera, allowing the robot to keep track of where they were in a book.

Minnie was programmed to make comments about the books as the child read out loud.

Sometimes these comments were funny, as in the case of a "Goosebumps" book where the lead characters are twins, Michaelis said.

"When this is first revealed in the story, Minnie says, 'Oh, that's amazing, I have a twin, too. She looks just like me, except she has green eyes.' Kids love this comment. They thought it was hysterical that a robot has a twin," Michaelis said.

At other times, Minnie would look away thoughtfully and provide a comment that gave some insight into the plot or the emotions at play in the story.

"That can really be a guidepost for a child who's reading," Michaelis said.

Michaelis said he helped develop the robot based on his experience as a former classroom teacher.

"I found if you had kids who were interested and motivated, you could really get them to do some pretty phenomenal things in learning," he said.

But Michaelis added that he "definitely doesn't see this replacing a teacher or parents," but instead providing a companion when humans aren't around.

"A lot of kids have this sequestered activity where they go to their room, they do their homework and that's the end of it," Michaelis said. "We feel by adding this companion robot into the equation, we can help facilitate that learning and also promote interest and motivation when other humans can't be there."

In the study, published Aug. 22 in the journal Science Robotics, a group of 24 children aged 10 to 12 were randomly assigned to either read with Minnie, or on their own with a paper-based reading guide. The test took place during a two-week period over summer break.

Kids in both groups read about the same amount of time, the researchers found.

Those reading with Minnie appeared to have more fun, saying they wanted to read more and felt they were gaining more from their books with the robot's help.

However, the Minnie group experienced a moderate decrease in the time they spent reading as the two weeks passed.

The researchers blamed this decline on technical glitches with the robot.

Sometimes the robot would crash and kids wouldn't realize it, continuing to read even though Minnie had stopped working, Michaelis said. Other times, the code scanner wouldn't function properly.

There also were small problems with the servomotors controlling Minnie's movements.

"A kid would notice one of the eyelids would blink and the other one wouldn't," Michaelis said. "That can ruin a good connection. It can completely throw the veil off the magic."

Child development expert Dr. Andrew Adesman found the reduction in reading time "concerning." He is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"Although the investigators attributed this reduced benefit to technological flukes with the social robots, I wonder if the initial boost in reading time was related to the novelty of the robot experience itself," said Adesman, who wasn't involved with the study. "For this approach to truly be effective, there would need to be sustained benefits."

Adesman hopes that more studies using even more sophisticated robots will be conducted, to see if having these companions can help spark a love of reading in children.

"It would be wonderful if, with programmed responses from a social robot, children could get turned on to reading for pleasure," Adesman said. "However, the results of this preliminary study suggest that the benefits may not be sustained. It is essential that more enduring benefits can be demonstrated if this type of approach is to be worth pursuing."

More information

The University of Michigan has more about childhood literacy.

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