Robolift Interview: David Robert, MIT

January 27, 2011 - 17:34
by Jean-Baptiste Labrune

In preparation for our upcoming Robolift conference, we launched a series of interviews on robotics and networked objects.

David Robert is a robot designer interested in playful interactions that combine physical construction of knowledge with ludic engagement, especially in the challenging context of systems for young children. He is also a professional narrator, capable of inventing visual stories (his backgorund is in animation) but also new experiences in real life that incorporate virtual aspects such as in the many « hybrid » environments he built that combine physical props and computational landscapes.

What robots or machines inspired you as a child, did you actually owned or build one when you were very young ?

Like many other children, I was inspired by fictional robotic characters- especially the ones that appeared to be helpful to humans and to each other. I always believed they should be free and that human beings should make an effort to understand them on their own terms as a unique representation of (the illusion of) life. In my teens, I became fascinated with transhumanism and the broader definition of life as a complex process that might exist beyond known configurations of carbon atoms. To animate simple aspects of this idea I worked with artificial life techniques on computers (robots without motility) until I was given the opportunity and support to do research in human-robot-interaction.

Can you present one of your recent robot and why it makes a contribution compared to existing one in the same field ?

The Alphabot is a mobile, untethered play robot shaped like a kid's wooden letter block. It's unique in that it has its own world, a reality that blends into and extends our own through digital projection, spatialized sound and tangible interaction within an instrumented play space. The character appears to seemingly move on and off a large screen through a portal in the space that facilitates the kinetically continuous transition between a physical robot and a digital, on-screen character. Additionally, children can place a symbol (letter, number, shape) on the robot to affect the robot's behavior and the on-screen media.

By changing the context of the human-robot-interaction and providing a digital world the children can actively co-create I'm hoping the Alphabot will help encourage imaginative play for young, preschool-aged children.

How do you think robotics will influence society in the next 20 years, especially regarding pedagogy and creativity ?

Rather than predict the future, my preferred approach is to take steps towards creating it. I'm interested in empowering people by creating platforms for creative expression with sufficient white space in the design to allow for customization and the unpredictable. I try to learn from a diverse range of interactors and look beyond normative cases at the outliers to inform my iterative design process.

There are many serious challenges that both educators and students face today. Keeping the wholistic needs of children first and foremost, I'm interested in collaborating with children, teachers, parents and educational media designers to deeply understand what needs a robot might serve. In the future, I would like to see robots as assistants to experienced teachers and working semi-autonomously under the guidance of an adult caregiver. Every child is different and learns best through a unique sequence of experiential modalities that could be tuned to unique needs. A robotic media system could personalize learning materials per student and auto-document their progress. An expert tutor in a remote location could have a greater impact through new, embodied distance learning technologies.

In my current research, however, the population I work with is very young (4-6 year olds) and as a result I aspire to create a fun, playful environment that encourages their creative exploration rather than focus on performative learning goals. The extensive literature on the importance of play to a child's physical, cognitive, emotional and social development underlines the child's ability to create as a tool for understanding the world and creating themselves in it. Through shared, creative acts children in an instantly connected world could learn from each by sharing bits and atoms of each others cultures. With the advent of inexpensive and ubiquitous 3D sensing and scanning, rapid 3D printing and natural, whole-body interaction, we are already witnessing an increasingly blurred boundary between the material and digital worlds.

A true, blended reality is emerging and robotic media will play a key role in moving ideas and to a degree, our mediated selves, through these new spaces.It's going to be important to include everyone in the human family as our diversity is what makes us strong and interesting.

David, thank you !

More links about David’s recent works:
MIT News

Entertainment Industry and MIT Media Lab 25th Anniversary:

David is cooperating with Cynthia Breazeal a RoboLift speaker.