Disney is set out to make kid-robot interactions more realistic. Predicting that someday our children will be raised by robots, the entertainment giant created a three-part storytelling study analyzing the interactions with a robot named Piper. In a world where some of the Best Smart Toys use state-of-the-art machine learning technology to engage our children, Disney is hoping to figure out what keeps the dialogue between robot and kid flowing naturally.
Disney’s Research Study
According to the researchers: “As human-robot dialog faces the challenges of long-term interaction, understanding how to use prior conversation to foster a sense of relationship is key because whether robots remember what was said, as well as how and when they expose that memory, will contribute to how we feel about them.”
Participating in a collaborative storytelling activity, in which 80 children were subjected to a set of predetermined responses from Piper, researchers wanted to test the powers of artificial intelligence:
“Despite recent progress, AI remains imperfect in recognizing children’s speech and understanding the semantics of natural language. Imperfect speech recognition and natural language understanding imply that the robot may not respond to children in a semantically coherent manner. With these impeding factors, it remains an open question whether fluid collaborative child-robot storytelling is feasible or is perceived as valuable by children.”
Can Robots Engage Children?
Children are rather intuitive creatures and when presented with a robot buddy that does not have human-like responses, the chances of forming a trusting relationship is slim. Disney researchers created a storytelling scenario in which a “kitten was found in a cave” – adding an emotional element to the experiment. They were then told to share their feelings about the kitten being lost when Piper asked them, “I hope the kitten got out of the cave ok?” The result of the study found that younger kids and boys had a difficult time with contextual additions – making the interaction between Piper and them a bit too unrealistic.
The third and final experiment tested the engagement level of interactive devices with popular TV shows. “What would happen if Dora the Explorer could hear you answer of her questions?” The researchers wanted to test the following: “As children begin to watch more television programming on systems that allow for interaction, such as tablets and video gaming systems, there are different opportunities to engage them… We performed three studies to examine the effects of accurate program response times, repeating unanswered questions, and providing feedback on the children’s likelihood of response.”
More Natural Kid-Robot Interactions
After viewing the show on Piper, the show would then ask a question about Dora the Explorer – waiting a good 10 seconds for the kid to respond before repeating the question. The end results better response times if there was accountability around having them answer the question – making it a more human-like interaction. Similar to interactions with human companions, older kids preferred responses from Piper that were based on previous interactions – stressing the importance of building rapport with basic social skills.
In the research study, Disney researchers found that there’s a fine line between building rapport and being over-the-top with too much information. As mentioned in a recent TechCrunch article, “no one wants Alexa or Google Home to say, ‘would you like to listen to the same playlist you did last week when you were feeling depressed and cooking a pizza while alone in the house.'” Although this is quite the empathetic response for a digital assistant, it’s a bit much and not really human-like. The authenticity is compromised. The same goes for the 80 children in the Disney experiment. They could sense when the responses were too programmed versus just allowing them to interact with Piper naturally.