These personal robots can explain emotions in many languages

The social robots can provide emotional support and mental health services.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Alghowinem and Jibo.jpg
Alghowinem and Jibo


Personal robots are machines engineered to provide assistance in various aspects of people's daily lives. These versatile devices come in a wide range of forms and shapes and can perform a variety of functions, from automating household chores to providing companionship and support to the elderly and people with disabilities.

Jibo, a robot engineered by MIT Professor and Dean for Digital Learning Cynthia Breazeal, who is also the founder of the institution’s Media Lab Personal Robots Group (PRG), is a personal robot that can actually do what even few humans can: explain emotions. It achieves this in several languages, including English and Arabic.

This is according to a report by MIT published on Sunday.

More than transactional assistants

Breazeal's work investigates how companion robots may one day become more than just transactional assistants who carry out requests for the current weather, complete to-do lists, or manage lighting. The PRG team at the MIT Media Lab developed Jibo to be a wise mentor and a friend who will hopefully improve social robotics technologies.

Now, Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist at PRG, is training Jibo to perform mental health care and education duties. 

Thanks to her work, Jibo can use positive psychology to coach people in need of emotional support. In one study, the robot was found to modify its approaches to patients based on their replies. Jibo showed the capacity to combine both verbal and non-verbal cues, such as long pauses and self-hugs, to determine what participants were really feeling. 

Jibo was even able to demonstrate empathy when he determined that the subjects showed intense emotions. If the subjects refused to share, Jibo gently coaxed them with an engaging question such as "Can you tell me more?"

The robot's techniques may even work to help prevent depression and suicide. Jibo is trained to handle people of all ages and genders. “I would like to see Jibo become a companion for the whole household,” said Alghowinem.

Helping Syrian refugee children

In her next project, Alghowinem hopes to provide Syrian refugee children with better opportunities as well as emotional support. The goal is to design a group of social robots that will have the ability to teach children English and social-emotional skills while also helping them hold on to their cultural heritage as well as the Arabic language. This project is still in the funding stage, but if Alghowinem has a say, it will see the light of day very soon.

“We’ve laid the groundwork by making sure Jibo can speak Arabic as well as several other languages,” said 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.”

It's important to note that while personal robots can make life easier and more comfortable, they can also present several privacy and ethical issues. Data security and user consent are just a few of these concerns.