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Making life friendlier with personal robots

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Making life friendlier with personal robots

“As a baby, I needed for a robot that might explain others’ emotions to me” says Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist within the Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group (PRG). Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Alghowinem says she dreamed of coming to MIT someday to develop Arabic-based technologies, and of making a robot that might help herself and others navigate a posh world.

In her formative years, Alghowinem faced difficulties with understanding social cues and never scored well on standardized tests, but her dreams carried her through. She earned an undergraduate degree in computing before leaving home to pursue graduate education in Australia. On the Australian National University, she discovered affective computing for the primary time and started working to assist AI detect human emotions and moods, but it surely wasn’t until she got here to MIT as a postdoc with the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women, which is housed within the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, that she was finally capable of work on a technology with the potential to elucidate others’ emotions in English and Arabic. Today, she says her work is so fun that she calls the lab “my playground.” 

Alghowinem can’t say no to an exciting project. She found one with great potential to make robots more helpful to people by working with Jibo, a friendly robot companion developed by the founding father of the Personal Robots Group (PRG) and the social robot startup Jibo Inc., MIT Professor and Dean for Digital Learning Cynthia Breazeal. Breazeal’s research explores the potential for companion robots to go far beyond assistants who obey transactional commands, like requests for the each day weather, adding items to shopping lists, or controlling lighting. On the MIT Media Lab, the PRG team designs Jibo to make him an insightful coach and companion to advance social robotics technologies and research. Visitors to the MIT Museum can experience Jibo’s charming personality.

Alghowinem’s research has focused on mental health care and education, often working with other graduate students and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students within the group. In a single study, Jibo coached young and older adults via positive psychology. He adapted his interventions based on the verbal and non-verbal responses he observed within the participants. For instance, Jibo takes within the verbal content of a participant’s speech and combines it with non-verbal information like prolonged pauses and self-hugs. If he concludes that deep emotions have been disclosed, Jibo responds with empathy. When the participant doesn’t disclose, Jibo asks a delicate follow up query like, “Are you able to tell me more?” 

One other project studied how a robot can effectively support high-quality parent and child interactions while reading a storybook together. Multiple PRG studies work together to learn what sorts of data are needed for a robot to grasp people’s social and emotional states.

“I would love to see Jibo turn into a companion for the entire household,” says Alghowinem. Jibo can tackle different roles with different members of the family similar to a companion, reminding elders to take medication, or as a playmate for kids. Alghowinem is very motivated by the unique role Jibo could play in emotional wellness, and playing a preventative role in depression and even suicide. Integrating Jibo into each day life provides the chance for Jibo to detect emerging concerns and intervene, acting as a confidential resource or mental health coach. 

Alghowinem can be enthusiastic about teaching and mentoring others, and never only via robots. She makes sure to satisfy individually with the scholars she mentors every week and she or he was instrumental earlier this 12 months in bringing two visiting undergraduate students from Prince Sultan University in Saudi Arabia. Mindful of their social-emotional experience, she worked hard to create the chance for the 2 students, together, to go to MIT in order that they could support one another. One in all the visiting students, Tasneem Burghleh, says she was curious to satisfy the one that went out of her solution to make opportunities for strangers and discovered in her an “limitless passion that makes her wish to pass it on and share it with everyone else.”

Next, Alghowinem is working to create opportunities for kids who’re refugees from Syria. Still within the fundraising stage, the plan is to equip social robots to show the kids English language and social-emotional skills and supply activities to preserve cultural heritage and Arabic abilities.

“We’ve laid the groundwork by ensuring Jibo can speak Arabic in addition to several other languages,” says Alghowinem. “Now I hope we will learn the way to make Jibo really useful to kids like me who need some support as they learn the way to interact with the world around them.”

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