Children aren't reading book? Minnie will help them

Posted At 2018 Sep 17 in News


The little robot asks if the boy is ready or not . The robot’s name is Minnie, and it’s designed to attract children to reading. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison just published a small study suggesting that having Minnie around helped kids get into reading & learn  more from it.

By the end of the two-week long experiment, some of the participants—many  boys &  girls aged 10-14—felt Minnie was expressing emotions & they imagine Minnie as a friend, and thoughts about the books they read. The paper mentions that one child said they could “talk to her about the book” and another that “it made me want to read more because it made you feel like you had to make it happy.” Given the low literacy rates among both adults and children in the United States, anything that can get kids involved in reading seems helpful. This is also true at home, because parents may not have the time, or the skills, to help their children learn to read effectively.


Like many things to do with social robotics, statements like these might seem like an unbelievable situation. After all, Minnie doesn’t really have emotions or thoughts—just pre-programmed responses for predicted questions. But the study findings could have broader implications for that burgeoning field by pointing to a place where having a robot around could actually be helpful. A social robot doesn’t have to be smart at doing everything to be helpful—and as anyone who’s ever argued with Siri can attest to, “smart” is a high bar. It just has to be good at doing one thing: in this case, reading. Minnie’s success with even unwilling readers lays in its ability to join in on an activity, providing a social component similar to a private teacher or even a virtual friend.




Unlike virtual assistants such as Alexa or Cortana, Minnie was designed to provide meaningful social interaction to reading middle-schoolers. Its presence actually mach their engagement with reading material, and the design focus on one activity allowed even this relatively simple robot to help young readers focus. “We wanted to replicate what a teacher or somebody who was interested in reading as an educational goal might actually do,” says one of the programers. Minnie can be read to and can discuss the material it is being read with preset statements. It can also recommend books that a reader might be interested in, thanks to a simple algorithm(J).


Minnie was designed to attract kids to a specific content of what they were reading, incrementally revealing things about its backstory and personality in response to content in the books. “We were going to incredible lengths to try to create a realistic experience,” he says. An example: when kids read The Night of the Living Dummy, a book that includes a twin, at the appropriate passage Minnie says, “that’s really cool. I have a twin sister too. She looks just like me, except she has green eyes.”


Minnie is just over a foot tall, with a humanlike face that occasionally wiggles and eyes in blue that blink and move to help convey emotions like intelligents. Below its chin is a small camera that enables it to “see” the pages of specially tagged books and response cards that readers hold up to talk to the robot. In its torso is a microphone that enables it to hear a book being read to it and a speaker that Minnie talk with it.


It stayed with families for two weeks. During that time, it read with middle-schoolers from a selection of 25 books, which included kid favorites like novels or kid stories. Over that time Minnie became part of the family to a degree they didn’t expect.


By the end of the two-week experiment they were excited to work with it and attributing these emotional and personality traits to the robot. At least one family dressed the robot up (as a Minion from the movie Despicable Me or suchas a Pet), and reading with Minnie had become a group activity for some families. These are things you can’t really get in a lab setting. So it was very nice & helpful to be able to get this in homes to see how that really affected on kids.


For people who are worried about too many non-human interactions in their child’s lives with assisstants, the idea of a robotic reading buddy might be extra-unsettling. But unlike Alexa, Minnie can only work with one task, and that only using cards and specific books wich were given to it before. Even if it expands its scope to directly interact with readers, it’s not going to have the same omnipresence as a virtual assistant in a smart home. And maybe that’s a better way to think about artificial intelligence—as a tool whose presence in the life of people, especially children, is limited to certain activities.


With just 24 readers involved, the study wasn’t big enough to make generalizable conclusions about what would work for everybody. But Tedon says it does point to an area of development for social robotics: activity-based interactions.


What we saw was that the robot’s emotional conduct and the content of the activity, the reading itself, really created a bond.