Promoting children’s safety through artificial intelligence

SFU students producing holograms by reproducing emotional memories. | Photo courtesy of SFU

Envision a safe space where you are able to play a game with your peers, controlled by each of the participants’ emotions.

Students at Simon Fraser University (SFU) have developed a futuristic design concept for an interactive and artificial intelligence (AI) driven holotent designed to support the development of empathy in children. The EmotoTent generates 3D holographic images based on memories of when each individual was feeling particular emotions. Participants are then able to interact through their emotions throughout the game and support other players using compassion and empathy. Each individual has the ability to edit the system if any minor discrepancies in capturing their feelings occur.

An experimental learning environment

The EmotoTent was created for a research design competition at the Association for Computing Machinery International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (ACM IDC), where the theme focused on children’s feelings of safety in schools.

“The EmotoTent is meant to be a design provocation, a call to action to the academic community and to society more broadly,” says. Alissa Antle, PhD., professor at SFU, director of the Tangible Embodied Child-Computer Interaction (TECI) lab, and the project lead of EmotoTent.

“I’ve played around with using tents for children’s learning environments in the past; it’s a safe, contained space – something we have looked at before. The question was how you can augment that space to enable them to work on understanding how their feelings and the feelings of other people work,” she adds, explaining the conceptualization of the initiative.

Students came together in the TECI lab to create the safe, experiential learning environment of the EmotoTent. Part of cultivating this environment was to include a fluffy dog character named Nana, based on the character in Peter Pan. Nana is a robotic, AI-driven agent that is programmed to sense and respond to all of the children’s emotions.

“Nana’s role was to look after the children, figuratively and physically. Pets have a big role to play in children’s emotions,” says Antle. “We entered the dog into the equation to help keep them safe, to have someone to play with as well as the other children…rather than a teacher where there could be a power imbalance.”

A lab for the modern world

In the TECI lab students work collaboratively with Antle to study, design, build and deploy interactive systems that support children’s learning and well-being.

Antle poses the question of whether there is a positive role for technology to play in doing something we couldn’t otherwise do, or a way to work with current interactive and digital technologies to create support for learning environments. Having done some work in emotional regulation using technology previously, she wants to explore this topic more in depth.

“Everyone’s experiences now in the modern world are mediated by technology.” she says. “We need to enhance our education system in this way.”

She emphasizes that the EmotoTent is less of a functional, active piece and more of a call to the academic community to understand the importance of creating systems for emotional and social learning.

“The bigger thing is stressing the importance of teaching children empathy and compassion, especially as we become more complex and diverse societies,” says Antle. “We will function better with children who have solid empathy skills and have experienced it as part of their upbringing.”

To her, it is critical that time is spent on teaching children how to understand their emotions at a young age.

“One way to counter increased environmental and societal pressures, marginalization and violence in schools, is to develop emotional regulation, empathy and compassion in children,” she says.

Antle feels that although they are technology developers, they want to promote social change in their world, and to impact the world at large.

“We should be spending time on this, it’s critical,,” she says.

For more information, visit www.antle.iat.sfu.ca and www.sfu.ca/siat/stories/graduate/ACM_IDC_2019_Design_contest_finalists.html

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