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From Childhood Dream to Reality: Building Emotional Robots at MIT

From Childhood Dream to Reality: Building Emotional Robots at MIT

“Sharifa Alghowinem: Creating a World of Emotional Understanding with Robots”

Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist in the Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group (PRG), had a childhood dream of developing Arabic-based technologies and creating a robot that could help people navigate the complexities of the world. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Alghowinem wished for a robot that could explain others’ emotions to her.

Despite facing difficulties with understanding social cues and not excelling at standardized tests, Alghowinem’s determination led her to earn an undergraduate degree in computing. She then pursued graduate education in Australia, where she first discovered affective computing and started working on detecting human emotions and moods using AI. However, it was when she came to MIT as a postdoc with the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women that Alghowinem finally had the opportunity to work on a technology capable of explaining others’ emotions in both English and Arabic.

Alghowinem enthusiastically embraces exciting projects, and she found one with great potential to make robots more helpful to people by collaborating with Jibo, a friendly robot companion developed by MIT Professor and Dean for Digital Learning Cynthia Breazeal. The Personal Robots Group (PRG) and Jibo Inc., a social robot startup, designed Jibo to be an insightful coach and companion for advancing social robotics technologies and research. Alghowinem’s research primarily focuses on mental health care and education, often collaborating with other graduate and undergraduate students.

One of her studies involved Jibo coaching young and older adults using positive psychology. Jibo adapted his interventions based on participants’ verbal and non-verbal responses, responding with empathy when deep emotions were disclosed or asking gentle follow-up questions to encourage further disclosure. Alghowinem also worked on a project that explored how a robot can effectively support parent-child interactions while reading a storybook together. Through different studies, the PRG team aims to understand the data needed for robots to comprehend people’s social and emotional states.

Alghowinem envisions Jibo becoming a companion for the whole household, serving different roles for different family members, such as a companion, medication reminder for elders, or playmate for children. She is particularly interested in Jibo’s potential role in emotional wellness, playing a preventive safeguard against depression and suicide. By integrating Jibo into daily life, Alghowinem believes Jibo can detect emerging concerns and act as a confidential resource or mental health coach.

Passionate about teaching and mentoring, Alghowinem ensures she meets individually with the students she mentors every week. She also played a pivotal role in bringing two visiting undergraduate students from Prince Sultan University in Saudi Arabia to MIT, creating a supportive environment for them to visit together. Alghowinem’s dedication and passion inspire others, and she strives to share her knowledge and opportunities with everyone.

Currently, Alghowinem is working towards providing opportunities for refugee children from Syria. The plan is to equip social robots with the ability to teach English language and social-emotional skills, as well as preserve cultural heritage and Arabic abilities. Alghowinem hopes that by making Jibo useful for children who need support in interacting with the world, she can create a positive impact.

Sharifa Alghowinem’s pioneering work in emotional understanding through robots demonstrates the potential for AI and robotics to enhance human experiences and mental well-being. Her dedication to teaching, mentoring, and creating opportunities for others reflects her commitment to making a difference in people’s lives. With her ongoing efforts, Alghowinem is paving the way for a future where robots become valuable companions in our everyday lives.

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