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FULLY DIGITAL (UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE) : PhD Defence Cristina Zaga | The design of robothings - Non-anthropomorphic and non-verbal robots to promote children's collaboration through play

The design of robothings - Non-anthropomorphic and non-verbal robots to promote children's collaboration through play

Due to the COVID-19 crisis measures the PhD defence of Cristina Zaga will take place online (until further notice).

The PhD defence can be followed by a live stream.

Christina Zaga is a PhD student in the research group Human Media Interaction (HMI). Her supervisor is prof.dr. V. Evers from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS).

Play is the most important “job” of a child: it is fun, but it also involves learning and training collaboration. The social skills needed to collaborate are the most sought-after socio-emotional competencies for the21st-century but are often overlooked in educational systems worldwide. Social robotic technology could play a significant role in supporting children’s collaborative skills learning if designed in a responsible and developmentally appropriate fashion. In education, social robots successfully leverage their ability to communicate socially to support children learning. However, by replicating formats and activities common in school education, tutoring robots might bring more challenges than solutions. Increasingly, researchers in Human-Robot Interaction and Child-Robot Interactionare exploring new pedagogical paradigms for social robots for children, focusing on play rather than tutoring. What if the technology we design for children could nurture the social skills of children through play? What if the toys children play with could support children’s collaboration through play in a developmentally appropriate way? This dissertation motivates, theorizes, operationalizes, and evaluates the design space of toys endowed with social robotic technology to support children’s collaboration in play. We define these social robots as robothings, low/non-anthropomorphic robots that communicate their prosocial intentions to influence people’s behaviors, leveraging their nonverbal communication affordances.

As such, robothings are hybrids between toys and social robots. Two facets are central in designing robothings to promote collaboration among children in play. The first facet is the operationalization of the robothing’s intervention and the effects on children’s association with such an intervention. The second facet is the design of effective robothing communication relying solely on non-anthropomorphic affordances and nonverbal communication. As a result, the dissertation has two overarching aims: To investigate how robots with less human-like forms and behaviors can promote children’s (7-11years old) collaboration through play and probe the design space of non-anthropomorphic nonverbal social communication in child-robot interaction. We crystallize intervention and communication dynamics of a robothing in a conceptual framework. At the intervention level, a robothing supports collaboration by promoting prosocial behavior by behaving prosocially in collaborative play. To this end, a robothing communicates its prosocial intention ’human-terms’.

Communicating in ’human-terms’ means leveraging the human tendency of parsing contingent movements as intentional. Drawing from the conceptual framework and a behavioral observation study of children, we explored how to design child-robothing communication in collaborative play and evaluated its effects. First, we translated the framework into actionable design principles and guidelines. We then carry out three studies to assess robothings’ behaviors in existing low/non-anthropomorphic platforms. We learn that a robothing legibly communicates its intention only with minimal gaze movements and actions delivered with a robothing locomotion. We gather first indications that a robothing influences children’s social motives to collaborate and reciprocate in collaborative play. However, we observe discrepancies between children’s behavioral reactions and their explanation of their own and the robothing behavior. Therefore, we explore methods to involve children in the design of a robot hinges behavior.

We introduce the co-design method: PErspective-taking in Embodied Role-Play (PeerPlay), consisting of two activities, Exploratory PeerPlay and Behavior-Authoring Peer Play. The method centers on embodied enactment and perspective-taking to co-design and co-generate robothings behavior in the design process. We describe two workshops with children in which we evaluate the two activities of the methods. We translate the insights from the co-design workshop into an ad-hoc proof-of-concept robothing platform. Based on children’s designs, we develop a remotely controlled robothing, Push-one, along with its actions and interaction. We evaluate Push-one’s behaviors in a video-based study and a behavioral study. The dissertation’s findings show that by delivering prosocial behavior interventions via actions in play, robothings can impact children’s prosocial behavior and reciprocity, thereby promoting collaboration. Simultaneously, the dissertation’s methodological exploration shows that designing for children demands focusing on what is meaningful for children and attuning how children develop. The research is a promising step towards the toys and the technology of the future. Toys and technology that enable learning through play giving agency to the child. Toys and technology for a future designed for and with children.



Cristina Zaga is an assistant professor, speaker, and maker of poetic robots. At the Human-Centred Design Group (Design and Production Management department) and The DesignLab of the University of Twente, Cristina’s research bridges engineering, design, and social science to develop robots responsibly. She investigates methodologies, methods, tools, and techniques to connect science and society through transdisciplinary responsible design of technology. She is particularly interested in developing co-design and speculative design methods to imagine, ideate, and design robots responsibly. Cristina believes in the power of poetic computation to bring about future-oriented reflection on the technology we want to develop.Previously, Cristina has worked at the Human-Media Interaction Group (University of Twente) and the Robots in Groups Lab (Cornell University, USA) on her doctoral research about “robothings”, everyday robotic objects, and toys, to promote children’s prosocial behaviors in collaborative play. Her award-winning work in Human-Robot Interaction has received many academic and societal accolades. She is regularly invited as a keynote speaker at events (e.g., TEDx, LaserTalks, DDW), symposia, and conferences. Cristina is an intersectional feminist and social justice advocate. She advocates for technology that is diverse and inclusive. Cristina was selected as Google Women TechMaker Scholar 2018 for her research quality and her efforts to make STEM more inclusive to women and children.