Can a robot help alleviate social isolation among young people? A prize-winning research project sought to answer this question by asking small groups of friends, average age 25, to live with a “social networking robot” dubbed Fribo for four weeks. Initial comments from the experimental group sound positive.
The research team, a group of roboticists from Yonsei University and KAIST in South Korea, recognized that a large and growing number of people between the ages of 18 and 35 are living alone, in South Korea and other countries around the globe. Whether a person lives alone by choice or circumstance, those who crave social interaction can get lonely. Over the last few years psychologists have proposed using social robots to provide companionship for older adults; the Korean research team is extending this same idea to a different age group.
The Fribo experiment involved stationing one device in the homes of every member of a friend network. Fribo “listens” to household noises and learns the source — a vacuum cleaner running or a fridge door opening, for example. The robot that “heard” the sound communicates the event to the other Fribos on its network, not by saying that the vacuum is running in a friend’s house but in a more conversational manner: “The vacuum cleaner in your friend’s house is running. Is the friend expecting company?” The stationary robot does attach a name to the activity report, maintaining anonymity for the person making the noise. If the friend who receives the report is interested, she signals this interest by knocking. Fribo will then reveal the name of the person who made the noise.
The little robot has a limited range of behaviors: it reports on noises it hears and understands. It can be trained to recognize new sounds, but it will not attempt to understand human speech or to store anything it hears.
After the four-week trial, users provided generally positive feedback about living with Fribo.
“I usually wake up late in the morning, but when I began to notice my friends getting ready early, I started thinking about starting the day earlier with my friends.”
“I usually do not get in touch with people. But nowadays, listening to activities has become a part of our conversation. The amount of conversation has increased as I contact my friends instantly whenever I feel like doing so.”
“As I am aware of the robot’s presence in my house, I have started talking to the robot more often. I tell the robot things that I would not normally say out loud.”
The research team describes Fribo as a middleman, joining friends by sharing information about, essentially, what noises the friends are making. This real-time information reduces the distance between friends. Each user can fine-tune the information transmitted, ensuring a comfortable level of privacy.
This initial research was conducted in South Korea. Fribo’s human team would like to conduct a longer trial, perhaps a year, and try it in family groups as well as friend groups. Results could also vary in different cultures.
The paper reporting on this research, “Fribo: A Social Networking Robot for Increasing Social Connectedness Through Sharing Daily Home Activities from Living Noise Data,” by Kwangmin Jeong, Jihyun Sung, Haesung Lee, Aram Kim, Hyem Kim, Chanmi Park, Youin Jeong, JeeHang Lee and Jinwoo Kim from Yonsei University and KAIST, was presented last month at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human Robot Interaction in March 2018, in Chicago, where it won the Best Paper Award.