A group of middle school students piloted a new social robot as an at-home reading companion during their summer months. Minnie is 13.5 inches tall with a static torso and moveable head, an embedded camera and microphone, and eyes so large and cartoon-like that they would fit right into a Miyazaki film. But researchers built Minnie to be so much more than a cute construction of plastic and electronics. They built her to have enough personality and emotional expression to make solid social connections with students.

The research team split 24 middle school kids, aged 10-12, into two groups. The control group completed reading activities with paper worksheets, while the other group read with Minnie, who offered comments throughout the activity about the book, her emotions, and her fictitious personal life. In both cases, students could choose from a selection of 25 fiction and non-fiction books and were not required to read at specific times or for specific durations. Rather, researchers told the students to read whenever they actually wanted to throughout the two-week study. This helped measure students’ interest and motivation with the reading activities.

Overall, there weren’t a lot of big differences between the groups regarding time spent reading and enjoyment levels. In both groups, students read on about 8 days out of the 13 total. Kids in the control group reported positive reading experiences and felt that their reading levels had improved because of the exercise. Likewise, children who read with Minnie also had positive reading experiences and reported feeling a personal connection with the social robot.

Minnie’s social bond with the children seemed to grow stronger over time rather than decrease once the novelty wore off. This was accomplished because the researchers designed Minnie to reveal personal information bit by bit so that children could get to know her in a more natural way. This made Minnie seem more like a companion with a true personality rather than an emotionless robot, and it motivated students to continue reading with her throughout the experiment.

The researchers think the similarities in overall reading time and enjoyment show the success of both activities, but they think Minnie showed particular promise in forging social connections that could transform reading from an isolated activity into a collaborative one. As social robots continue to gain popularity in education, studies like this one are important in determining what kinds of robots promote meaningful connections and learning experiences for kids. Minnie’s charm and personality seem to be solid steps in the right direction.

Michaelis, J. E., & Mutlu, B. (2018). Reading socially: Transforming the in-home reading experience with a learning-companion robot. Science Robotics, 3(21).

Image: via Science Robotics