The Design of Robothings: Non-Anthropomorphic and Non-Verbal Robots to Promote Children’s Collaboration Through Play

    Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis - Research UT, graduation UT

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    Play is the most critical “job” of a child: it is fun, but it also involves learning and training collaboration. The social skills needed to collaborate are the most sought-after socio-emotional competencies for the 21st-century but are often overlooked in educational systems worldwide. Social robotic technology could play a significant role in supporting children’s learning of collaborative skills if designed in a responsible and developmentally appropriate fashion.
    In education, social robots successfully leverage their ability to communicate socially to support children’s learning. However, by replicating school formats and activities, tutoring robots might bring more challenges than solutions. Researchers in Human-Robot Interaction and Child-Robot Interaction are increasingly exploring new pedagogical paradigms for social robots for children, focusing on play rather than tutoring. What if the technology we design for children could nurture the social skills of children through play? What if the toys children play with could support children’s collaboration through play in a developmentally appropriate way?
    This dissertation motivates, theorizes, operationalizes, and evaluates the design space of toys endowed with social robotic technology to support children’s collaboration in play. We define these social robots as robothings. The term robothing derives from the term robot and the term thing. The prefix ‘robo’ is an abbreviation of the word robot. It indicates an autonomous artificial agent that is embodied and communicates. The suffix thing is related to the word ‘thing’, but it connects with the concept of things
    developed by the philosopher Bruno Latour. For Latour, everyday objects are not inanimate, nor are simple tools. Objects shape how we perform actions (e.g., a crutch changes the way we walk and experience moving in the space); they extend our capabilities (e.g., the microscope extends our vision capabilities and our knowledge about nature), shaping how we make sense of ourselves and the world, supporting and influencing how people act and make sense of the world. Thus, conceptually robothings refer to things as a robotic mediator of the children-world relationship.
    Concretely, robothings are hybrids between objects and social robots. Robothings are low/non-anthropomorphic robots that communicate their prosocial intentions to influence people’s behaviors, leveraging their nonverbal communication affordances. We conceptualize the role of a robothing as an interactive ‘thing’, with its agency, rather than a human-like partner (e.g., teacher, friend) that aims at a human-like agency Two facets are central in designing robothings to promote collaboration among children in play. The first facet is the operationalization of the robothing’s intervention and the effects on children’s collaboration of such an intervention.
    The second facet is the design of effective robothing’s communication relying solely on non-anthropomorphic affordances and nonverbal communication. As a result, the dissertation has two overarching aims: To investigate how robots that have less human-like form and behaviors can promote children’s (7-11 years old) collaboration through play, and to probe the design space of non-anthropomorphic nonverbal social communication in child-robot interaction.
    We crystallize intervention and communication dynamics of a robothing in collaborative play in a conceptual framework derived from multidisciplinary literature. At the intervention level, a robothing supports collaboration by promoting prosocial behavior by behaving prosocially in collaborative play. To this end, a robothing communicates its prosocial intention in ‘human terms’. Communicating in human terms means leveraging the human tendency of parsing contingent movement as intentional. Drawing from
    the conceptual framework and a behavioral observation study of children, we explored how to design child-robothing communication in collaborative play and evaluated its effects. First, we translated the framework into actionable design principles and guidelines. We then carry out three studies to evaluate robothings’ behaviors in existing low or non-anthropomorphic platforms. We learn that a robothing legibly communicates its intention only with minimal gaze movements and actions delivered with a robothing
    locomotion. We gather first indications that a robothing influences children’s social motives to collaborate and reciprocate in collaborative play. However, we observe discrepancies between children’ behavioral reactions and their explanation of both their own and the robothing behavior. Therefore, we explore methods to involve children in the design of a robothing’s behavior.
    We introduce a co-design method: PErspective-taking in Embodied Role-Play (PeerPlay), consisting of two activities Exploratory PeerPlay and Behavior-Authoring Peer Play. The method centers on embodied enactment and perspective-taking to co-design and co-generate robothings behavior in the design process. We describe two workshops with children in which we evaluate the two activities of the methods. We translate the insights from the co-design workshop into an ad-hoc proof-of-concept robothing platform.
    Based on children’s designs, we develop a remotely controlled robothing, Push-one, along with its actions and interaction. We evaluate Push-one’s behaviors in a video-based study and a behavioral study.
    The dissertation’s findings show that by delivering prosocial behavior interventions via actions in play, robothings can impact children’s prosocial behavior and reciprocity, thereby promoting collaboration. Simultaneously, the dissertation’s methodological exploration shows that designing for children demands focusing on what is meaningful for children and attuning how children develop. The research is a promising step towards the toys and the technology of the future. Toys and technology that enable learning
    through play giving agency to the child. Toys and technology for a future designed for and with children.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Twente
    • Evers, Vanessa, Supervisor
    • Truong, Khiet P., Co-Supervisor
    Award date5 Mar 2021
    Place of PublicationEnschede
    Print ISBNs 978-90-365-5138-0
    Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2021


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