As a young kid, Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist in the Personal Robots Group (PRG) at the MIT Media Lab. How personal robots are making life friendlier
Recalls wishing for a robot that could explain other people’s feelings to her. Alghowinem claims that while growing up in Saudi Arabia, she had dreams of one day attending MIT to work on Arabic-based technology and of building a robot that could assist her and others in navigating a complicated environment.
Alghowinem struggled in her early years to grasp social signs and never did well on standardized examinations, but her dreams helped her get through it all. Before leaving her home to pursue graduate studies in Australia, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computers. It wasn’t until she arrived at MIT as a postdoc with the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women, which is housed in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, that she was finally able to work on a technology with the potential to explain others’ emotions in English and Arabic. At the Australian National University, she first discovered affective computing and started working to help AI detect human emotions and moods.
Alghowinem is unable to refuse an intriguing proposal. Working with Jibo, a lovable robot companion created by Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT professor and the dean for digital learning, creator of the Personal Robots Group (PRG) and the social robot business Jibo Inc., she discovered one with a lot of promise for making robots more useful to people. Breazeal’s study looks at how companion robots may be more than just transactional assistants that carry out requests for the current weather, to-do lists, or lighting management. The PRG team at the MIT Media Lab creates Jibo to be a wise mentor and friend who will improve social robotics technology and research. Jibo’s endearing personality may be experienced by visitors to the MIT Museum.
How personal robots are making life friendlier
Alghowinem’s research has focused on mental health care and education, often working with other graduate students and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program students in the group. In one study, Jibo coached young and older adults via positive psychology. He adapted his interventions based on the verbal and non-verbal responses he observed in the participants. For example, Jibo takes in 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 gentle follow up question like, “Can you tell me more?”
Another 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 types of data are needed for a robot to understand people’s social and emotional states.
“I would like to see Jibo become a companion for the whole household,” says Alghowinem. Jibo can take on different roles with different family members such as a companion, reminding elders to take medication, or as a playmate for children. Alghowinem is especially motivated by the unique role Jibo could play in emotional wellness, and playing a preventative role in depression or even suicide. Integrating Jibo into daily life provides the opportunity for Jibo to detect emerging concerns and intervene, acting as a confidential resource or mental health coach.
Alghowinem is also passionate about teaching and mentoring others, and not only via robots. She makes sure to meet individually with the students she mentors every week and she was instrumental earlier this year 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 opportunity for the two students, together, to visit MIT so they could support each other. One of the visiting students, Tasneem Burghleh, says she was curious to meet the person who went out of her way to make opportunities for strangers and discovered in her an “endless passion that makes her want to pass it on and share it with everyone else.”
Alghowinem is working to create opportunities for children who are refugees from Syria. Still in the fundraising stage, the plan is to equip social robots to teach the children English language and social-emotional skills and provide activities to preserve cultural heritage and Arabic abilities.
“We’ve laid the groundwork by making sure Jibo can speak Arabic as well as several other languages,” says Alghowinem. “Now I hope we can learn how to make Jibo really useful to kids like me who need some support as they learn how to interact with the world around them”