The National Science Foundation has committed $10 million to build robots that will act as "personal trainers" for children, in an effort to influence their behavior and eating habits.
The government has spent $2.15 million so far for the five-year project, which is being led by Yale University. The project, "Robots Helping Kids," will ultimately "deploy" robots into homes and schools to teach English as a second language, and encourage kids to exercise.
The project will develop a "new breed of sophisticated ‘socially assistive’ robots," designed to help children "learn to read, appreciate physical fitness, overcome cognitive disabilities, and perform physical exercises," according to a news release by Yale University when the grant was first announced in 2012.
"Just like a good personal trainer, we want the robots to be able to guide the child toward a behavior that we desire," said Brian Scassellati, a computer science professor at Yale and principal investigator for the study.
"What we want to do is move these robots out of the laboratory and into schools and homes and clinics, places where we can directly help children on a day-to-day basis," he said.
The NSF grant said the project is necessary due to "critical societal problems."
"The need for this technology is driven by critical societal problems that require sustained, personalized support that supplements the efforts of educators, parents, and clinicians," the grant said.
Scassellati envisions the robots influencing nearly every aspect of children’s lives.
"We want them to help children learn language, we want to help them learn better eating habits, we want them to learn new social or cognitive skills through their interactions with these robots," he said. "And the robots will be supporting with the efforts we already have with human therapists, and their parents, and their communities. The robots will supplement those activities and allow us to give children more continuous and more detailed support."
The project is seeking to create robots that could be personal companions to children for up to a year. Scassellati said he wants to "build a healthy relationship of trust and respect between the child and the robot."
"At the end of five years we’d like to have robots that can guide a child toward long-term educational goals, be customized for the particular needs of that child, and basically grow and develop with the child," he said. "We want the robot to be the equivalent of a good personal trainer."
The NSF has allotted $10 million for the study through 2017. The grant is one of the highest amounts the agency dispenses.
Scassellati said the robots would "not replace" humans, but provide additional attention and guidance for children. The research is focusing on both "regularly developing children and those with social or cognitive deficits." Some of Scassellati’s prior research has focused on how robots can help kids with Autism.
"If we’re successful in this, we think we can make a real difference in the lives of children," he said. "And we think that we can produce some of the most interesting, the most engaging, and the most competent social robots that we’ve ever seen."