Robotic Tortoise ‘Shelly’ Helps Kids to Learn that Robot Abuse is a Bad Thing

Robotic Tortoise ‘Shelly’ Helps Kids to Learn that Robot Abuse is a Bad Thing

The robotic tortoise ‘Shelly’ is fun to play with, but if you hit it, it’ll hide inside its shell until it’s safe to come out again. This timid tortoise teaches toddlers tempered touching.

Kids like to touch things. Kids like to whack things. This is usually fine when the thing is a toy, but it can be a problem when the thing is a robot. Researchers at Naver Labs, KAIST, and Seoul National University written about children beating robots up before, and it seems like it’s an inevitability when kids (or even some adults) meet a robot for the first time: They want to see what it can do and how it reacts to things, and that can result in some behaviors and interactions that would be pretty upsetting if they were targeted at something alive. That is to say, sometimes kids are abusive towards robots, especially when there aren’t any consequences to the things that they do.

At the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction (HRI) in Chicago last week, researchers from Naver Labs, KAIST, and Seoul National University in presented a robot called Shelly, which is designed to teach children that they shouldn’t abuse robots. The idea is to reduce or eliminate aggressive behaviors when interacting with the device. Shaped like a tortoise, Shelly is fun to play with, unless you smack it, at which point it hides inside its shell until it’s safe to come out again.

When Shelly is “happy,” bright colors illuminate its shell [left]. When it’s “sad,” it hides its head and disables the lights for 14 seconds [right].

Shelly is designed to be large enough that five to seven children (under 13 years old or so) can interact with it simultaneously. The top part, Shelly’s shell, has embedded LEDs along with vibration sensors that can detect touches and impacts. Shelly’s body consists of a cute little head and four limbs that wiggle around, all of which can be retracted back inside the shell. Using its LEDs and limbs, Shelly conveys different emotional states, including happy, sulky, angry, and frightened. The frightened behavior gets triggered when a kid hits, kicks, or lifts the robot, and when that happens, Shelly retracts inside its shell and stays there for 14 seconds.

Before playing with Shelly, children are explicitly told that if they abuse the robot, it will get scared and hide for a little bit. The researchers weren’t testing whether the hiding behavior itself would make the kids less abusive; rather, they figured that the most significant effect would come from the robot being much less fun to play with while it was hiding.

Results showed that Shelly’s hiding technique was able to significantly reduce children’s abusive behavior, relative to how they acted when the robot didn’t hide at all. When they tried reducing the hiding length from 14 seconds to 7, abuse actually increased, because the hiding behavior itself was seen as a reward. And a longer hiding length of 28 seconds caused the kids to get bored and leave, defeating the purpose of the robot. Also interesting is that part of the effectiveness comes from the fact that in groups, children will mutually restrain inappropriate behaviors.



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