Kids love to roughhouse, whether it’s with family, friends, pets, carnival-sized stuffed animals—anything that’s ready to rumble, really. But considering that robotic platforms are increasingly entering family homes, researchers have been developing ways to teach children that beating up the household robot is a bad idea.
Enter Shelly, a robot tortoise developed by a South Korean team of roboticists from Naver Labs and Seoul National University. With her eye-catching shell of embedded LED lights, Shelly is an instant hit for most kids, and indeed, many of them feel compelled to give her a thrashing. But when playtime starts to get rough, the tortoise retreats back into her shell, which is intended to encourage children not to abuse robotic helpers.
According to Jason J. Choi, a researcher at Naver Labs, field tests show that kids definitely want to brawl with Shelly. “Some children showed a great interest in the robot’s response to their interactions and tried to see how it responded to their beating actions,” Choi told IEEE Spectrum, “Also, when a child started to beat our robot, the others were motivated to follow that child’s action, enjoying hitting the shell together.”
But after observing Shelly’s response to the beatings, many children caught on that respectful patting was the best way to get the tortoise to play. “We observed that those children often introduced Shelly to the others as “a tortoise-like robot that you shouldn’t hit but pet,” Choi said. “When Shelly stops its interaction due to a child’s abusive behavior, the others in the group who wanted to keep playing with Shelly often complained about it, eventually restraining that child’s abusive behavior if that behavior continued.”
This is not the first time scientists have tried to understand—and potentially curb—kids’ instincts to bully robots. A previous study organized by Japanese researchers filmed children attacking a mobile bot called Robovie 2 in an Osaka mall.
Most domestic robots at the moment—like Alexa or Roombas—don’t particularly interest children, as they get more complex and interactive, kids will need to be better acquainted with these newfangled platforms, and taught to respect them. Fortunately, Shelly and Robovie are taking those first hits for the team.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.