Crafting AI Systems With Children: Design of the Empathetic Robot Haru

Written by Randy Gomez of Honda Research Institute Japan

Honda Research Institute Japan (HRI-JP) envisions a society in which systems with cooperative intelligence play a proactive role in nurturing good relationships among diverse members of society. One particularly important field of research the Honda Research Institute is engaged in is intelligent communication and social interaction, where machines act as mediators for humans, helping bridge the gap of cross-cultural and intergenerational differences. HRI-JP is conducting multi-disciplinary research at the crossroads of artificial intelligence, social and behavioural sciences, and robotics to develop a new kind of embodied intelligence, with deep social awareness of societal norms and needs rooted in its continuous emotional interaction with people. These socially intelligent machines will develop and learn transformative perception and interaction capabilities that allow them to connect people for the benefit of cultivating a better understanding of their differences and foster good relationships. They will nurture an atmosphere of trust and well-being that paves the way for people to reach out to each other and attain their full potential. Our vision is challenging and requires great effort to make a reality. By forging an alliance through partnerships with key players in the different scientific fields and sectors in society, we are able to bring diversity and multi-disciplinary expertise to our approach.

The Office of Global Insight and Policy develops policy guidance for UNICEF as part of their AI for Children project to understand better the interplay of AI and its effects on children. They promote research into questions such as how to protect and empower children through the use of AI systems. UNICEF, with its partners, drafted the first iteration of their AI policy guidance that offers recommendations on how to promote children’s welfare when deploying AI systems. In evaluating said policy guidance, UNICEF invited select governments and companies around the world to put it to the test in real situations.

As a company that fosters responsible AI, HRI-JP took the invitation as an opportunity to contribute to society. This invitation inspired us to focus our research on developing an even more ethical, child-centred system design. HRI-JP has committed to the development of trustworthy artificial intelligence with particular emphasis on our children. When focusing on ethics and trust, an essential tool is empathy. Therefore, it is part of our mission to make embodied artificial intelligence more empathetic. Nowhere is this more important than in the interaction between robots and children, where empathetic communication plays a crucial role.

The past two years have been difficult for children given the increased social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdowns, children were especially hard hit by social isolation, being unable to visit their friends and loved ones. The inability to be physically present profoundly affected their social and emotional well-being.

This pandemic imposed social isolation of children, one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, further strengthening HRI’s commitment to children’s well-being and our focus towards developing research projects for children.

Children have a wonderful way of bringing the inanimate to life with their own unrestricted imagination. With this in mind, we have built the Haru robot, an embodied platform inspired by animated films. Haru is equipped with rich communicative modalities specifically designed to maximise empathetic engagement with children. With Haru, we embody personality into the physicality of the AI system.

Haru is a prototype robotic platform, exploring empathic interaction for long-term cohabitation with children. It is equipped with unique perception and action capabilities and a repertoire of behaviours that allow researchers to develop human understanding and behaviour generation modules for continuous integration. This enables the robot to understand and navigate its interaction with children. Haru’s long-term goal is to develop into (1) a companion robot that addresses social and emotional needs of children and (2) an embodied mediator that connects children from around the world by bridging social and cultural differences by fostering each other’s understanding. Since the technology revolves around children, we ensure children are involved from the beginning, from the design of user requirements to the development of the myriad of applications through participatory and pilot studies. We also implemented safeguards in the usage and handling of data when employing the perception modules of Haru.

As a company, HRI-JP made a strategic decision to affirm UNICEF’s vision of a world built with children in mind. We adopted the key elements of the policy guidance, namely fairness and non-discrimination, transparency, explain ability, and accountability for children. We put our commitment into action by embedding these key elements into the Haru system.

Our final goal is to create a self-developing and learning robotic system that is fully compliant with UNICEF policy guidance. We started this work through our case study by deploying interactive story telling in which Haru acts and narrates the story and through collaborative gaming in which Haru plays the tower of Hanoi with the kids. Haru’s platform is centred on supporting children’s emotional and cognitive wellbeing; hence, we actively involved children to listen to their needs and worked with them through participatory studies. For example, in the storytelling application, children’s desire to share personal stories with the robot emerged as one of the most important elements during the study. We then supported their desire by expanding Haru’s platform, enabling children to create and share their own stories and give them direct control of Haru’s interactivity. This process not only allows them to share what is personal to them but empowers them to choose and design the kind of content they consume.

Image courtesy of HRI-JP; artwork by Deborah Szapiro

Throughout UNICEF’s Policy Guidance on AI and Child’s Rights, children’s participation is highlighted as a fundamental approach for the successful integration of the proposed requirements. For this reason, HRI-JP decided to collaborate with an institution that works on the intersection of research and policy, such as the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC). The JRC combines expertise in child-robot interaction, child development, and children’s participation with experience in the integration of policy requirements into AI applications. We worked with the JRC when conducting participatory studies with the schools around the world, such as extraction of children-centred user requirements. With external collaborators, we also work with the JRC in designing applications and interactive content that ensures the deployment of trustworthy robots for children. 
Honda Research Institute has committed to innovation through science, and our research targets a brighter future for the children of today. Children can create a future with equal opportunities. We must equip them with tools that reflect equality rather than the biases of the past. The children of today and the intelligent robots of tomorrow share one thing in common: they hold our future in their hands. We dream of a future where humans have bridged the cultural divides and stand united with the aid of our empathic robots in a hybrid society. Our partnership with the key players has brought in diverse insights that aided us to develop technologies that are reflective of UNICEF’s policy guidance. The Honda Research Institutes with our expert collaborators and partners are dedicated to turning this dream into reality.