Will robot playmates become our children’s only friends?

Will robot playmates become our children’s only friends?

Picture this: your perennially shy seven-year-old asks you to invite a friend over on a random afternoon. Or, perhaps, you might find yourself pleasantly amazed by a series of loving notes left around your home, addressed to all the members of your family by your usually despondent and inattentive child. 

Those are the sorts of character traits and attitudes that robotics and AI company Embodied, Inc. hopes to influence through its newest creation.

Moxie is a social companion robot aimed at children between the ages of 5 and 10

At just over 7 pounds in weight and 15 inches in height, the aqua-colored Moxie features a screen as a face, which projects relatively real-looking facial expressions alongside movable robotic arms and a voice that sounds as human-like as you’d expect a robot’s voice to sound. But no aspect of the product has been left up to chance: Embodied, Inc. has been testing Moxie since the summer of 2020 and has sent it to 100 families across the United States as part of its beta programming schedule. 

“We used that data to keep improving the user experience to make it be delightful and also measuring efficacy to see how the robot can have an impact on the child’s behavior,” says Paolo Pirjanian, CEO and co-founder of Embodied, Inc. and former Chief Technology Officer at iRobot, a consumer robot company.

Even the computerized companion’s name is no coincidence: the word ‘Moxie’ means ‘force of character and determination’. Moxie’s deepest intention is to help children develop their emotional intelligence (EQ), a trait intricately connected to social, cultural and “essential life skills,” as Pirjanian explains. 

“Usually, we [think of] intelligence quotient (IQ) as the trait that allows a child to succeed in life and career,” says Pirjanian. “But EQ turns out to be as important, if not more important, although not supported very well [by society]. There aren’t that many solutions out there that are helping children from an early age.”

The CEO’s thoughts are supported by evidence that highlights the importance of developing social traits as necessary life skills and in support of a child’s IQ. 

“When we try to think about children’s social and emotional development, we think about them being able to take turns and eventually engage in perspective-taking, have awareness of their own feelings as well as those of other people,” says Dr. Samantha Glickman, a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow in the ADHD and Disruptive Disorders Clinic at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health. “Making friends, keeping friends, gaining confidence, learning how to resolve conflict, manage difficult emotions or using coping skills are some of the things that we hope kids [between the ages of 5 and 10] can develop.”

One question, then, begs to be answered: how can a robot help develop some of the most un-robotic-like aspects of human personality? 

“From very early on, we had therapists and child development experts on staff to bring us the expertise needed,” explains Pirjanian. “We [also] brought on a lot of creatives from Pixar and Disney to create a life-like, interactive, adorable character that kids actually want to interact with.”

In addition to building a team bestowed with the technical know-how, the company took a deep dive into the sorts of evidence-based techniques typically used in child therapy to benefit patients diagnosed with the likes of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. 

Pirjanian explains that children on the spectrum could also make use of the curated content that Moxie is programmed to offer. The robot functions the same across the board, but the disposition and needs of kids on the spectrum could, potentially, majorly benefit from the repetitiveness that defines a computer logic. Dr. Glickman specifically points out the potential pluses.

“I’ve read studies about the advantages of using some of this technology in treating [children on the spectrum],” she says. “What it boils down to is the fact that robots more so than humans can be really consistent and have a lot of patience so they can consistently reinforce some of the skills that kids on the spectrum might need to learn and that, a lot of times, might be pretty expensive [to address through therapy].” This is where Moxie has a huge advantage over uninterrupted relatively long therapeutic services that are not feasible for all parents.

Pirjanian does, however, mention that “the statistics in the United States show that one in six children are diagnosed with some developmental challenge.” As a result, the company seeks to target all sorts of children. “In one of our studies, we noticed that the impact of the tool on children is independent of their being neurodiverse or neurotypical,” he explains. “We saw a 50% improvement among them all.”

The sort of exercises that the companion robot can tirelessly go through include identifying and labeling emotions, breathing techniques, mindfulness journeys, bullying-related conversations, and other conversations that might lead kids to trust in and talk to adults.

Although there is no true predecessor to the robot, emotional support animals might be thought of as previous EQ helpers—albeit touching upon the sort of benefits that Moxie and other social companion systems might find hard to emulate.

“Therapy animals can be really helpful for kids who have anxiety and they can help kids manage emotions in a lot of different ways,” says Dr. Glickman. “When a pet owner pets his or her animals, for example, the action typically releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which increases pleasure and comes through the physical touch. So I imagine that the human touch would be something that’s hard to mimic.” 

It’s important to also note that, even according to Pirjanian himself, companion robots aren’t meant to replace traditional schooling and educational efforts but, rather, complement them. “Our mission is to help increase the social skills in children that complement their STEM education,” says Pirjanian. “Because the fundamental gap in our societies is that we do not emphasize social and EQ skills enough.” 

Independent studies have supported the idea that society does not emphasize social and EQ skills enough 

“In one Six Seconds study, the organization found that when a high school math teacher spent time on social emotional learning [for example: asking students about their feelings and having them watch a video dealing with a difficult decision and talking them through it], the rest of the more traditional math lessons were easier to get through (compared with classes that didn’t have the EQ component),” a Today’s Parent article from 2020 says. “The teacher attributed the results—improved math learning following EQ exercises over a three-month period—to better relationships, better communication and better context for problem solving in the classroom.”

Dr. Glickman goes a step further, positing that Moxie-like products might also supplement human-to-human interactions without necessarily taking their spot. “In some ways, robots could somehow serve as an adjunct to human interactions, reinforcing skills that kids learn through those interactions,” says Dr. Glickman. “It is interesting to consider that so much of that is based on nonverbal communication so it’s important for whatever robot to go to market to be able to mimic those nonverbal cues, whether they be facial or body expressions. I think that is an important piece of the puzzle.”

But a probable lack of human-like tendencies isn’t the robot’s only drawback. Given the extensive technologies involved in the building and operation of Moxie, its cost is close to $1,700. And that’s not an aspect unique to Embodied, Inc.’s offering. Misty Robotics’ Misty II, which is fairly similar, runs closer to $3,000. Miko, a robot that is not nearly as developed as Moxie and Misty, runs over $300. 

Given that a lot of the behavioral issues that items like Moxie try to solve afflict low-income societies, does Embodied, Inc. find its product to be indirectly fueling social inequality? 

“That’s a dilemma,” concedes Pirjanian. “So the question for us would have been: do we just not launch or at least make it available?” Opting for the former option, Pirjanian does note that the company is hoping to eventually work with schools and hospitals, potential product buyers that could make it available to a wide array of kids. “It’s going to take some time but we also want to evaluate ways for insurance payers to pay for this so that lower income families can get access and benefit from the product.”

Clearly, Pirjanian and his staff don’t think this is a mere fad. Rather, it is the dawn of a new era for both the robotics industry and human behavior. At the very least, it is a clear display of a problem that is here to stay—especially in light of the global occurrences that have come to define the past 12 months.

“The pandemic proved to be a really difficult time for kids,” says Dr. Glickman. “Children aren’t having those social and emotional interactions that they’ve had historically.” Although praising teachers’ efforts, Dr. Glickman does concede that any sort of emotional intelligence aid is needed at this time of crisis. 

For his part, Pirjanian believes “these issues existed way before the pandemic and they’re going to exist even after,” so any sort of help should be accepted and welcomed. 

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