Feds spend $1 million on a robot that collects data on kids

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The National Science Foundation has announced the purchase of a “friendly social robot” that’s purpose will be to collect data on the mental health of high school students.

The foundation awarded $1,067,001 to the University of Washington which will work to develop the robot. Researchers hope the Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot (EMAR) will be able to “inform the decision-making” of school administrators in the state.

The grant for the research states: “This award supports project EMAR (Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot), a timely interdisciplinary project that will research, develop, and deploy a user-friendly social robot that gathers teen mental health data in a public high school setting.”

While the potential uses for robots are seemingly limitless, education officials have noted that investigating teen interactions through the lens of a robot has been “overlooked.”

“Such an investigation is needed since adolescents are very likely to have long-lasting relationships with robots in the future at work, in the classroom, and at home,” the grant states. “It [is] also needed especially since adolescents constitute a vulnerable population that is negatively affected by stress and mental health issues, and since there are well-established difficulties in gathering accurate, useful, mental health data from teens in their natural environment with digital surveys and experience sampling using static data collection tools including computers, tablets, and smart phones.”

The EMAR gathers “stress and mood data from teens throughout their school day and shares that data in aggregate with the school community.”

“This is how we get a pulse on the teen community at school to better understand how students are feeling,” according to a university blog post introducing the robot last fall.

If the study is successful in gleaning real insight, the door opens for further applications of robots to other areas of social research.

“It will also facilitate assessing the feasibility of using a robot to gather real-time data for aggregation into visual data that would serve to inform decision-making and evaluation of interventions; such an ability would be especially useful in school environments where teens need more support,” the grant states.

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