Intelligent Adaptive Toys

A topic of intense interest within human-computer interaction is the design of technology for children, often through a fusion of ubiquitous computing with educational principles. Such research is guided by several assumptions: computers have latent potential for enhancing education; children possess latent learning capacity not fully engaged by current methods of teaching (particularly in math and science); and as future users, children have been hitherto ignored by mainstream HCI, which has largely focused on usability for older populations.

Seymour Papert was one of the first people to consider how computers might revolutionize learning. After graduating from Cambridge and working with Jean Piaget, he founded MIT's Artifical Intelligence Laboratory and wrote Perceptrons with Marvin Minsky. He then turned to research the ways in which computers could enhance learning and creativity, and soon authored Mindstorms (after which Lego Mindstorms is named). Papert's basic premise was that children need objects to think with, and that the computer could be the ultimate instrument of learning: "the computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate.” Although the premise guiding much modern research in the field has evolved to objects that think with children, the basic principles of current research in this field remain the same.

The largest research group at MIT's Media Lab remains focused on children, but this focus is by no means limited to Cambridge. At the Craft Technologies Group at University of Colorado, Boulder, Mike Eisenberg and others are developing various low-cost options for integrating computation with educational activities. They have refined inexpensive techniques for math visualization in three-dimensions, created cellular-automaton construction kits, and even developed low-tech three-dimensional printers. These tools are hypothesized to exercise spatial thinking and therefore the parietal lobe, a brain region implicated both in normal arithmetic ability and impaired in dyscalculics.

In contrast, much of the work done at University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab centers around the use of language. In the "StoryRooms" project, Allison Druin and others have developed a system of wirelessly mesh-networked intelligent toys in which children can act out their own narratives using computational props. Another project, "PETS," allows child-friendly programming of various robots to enact stories written by children: think Teddy Ruxpin with WiFi and an API.

Nor is this field purely academic; several private companies have begun developing similar products. Anthrotronix, a Maryland-based company, has developed programmable robots for rehabilitation, as well as various systems designed to exercise attention, visual learning, and social interaction in both neuro-normals and autistics. Leapfrog has created a "pen-top" interactive game that has been shown to help special needs children. Kaplan has an immense variety of toys that purport to enhance problem solving. And Wonderbrains develops toys based on MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.

Many of these toys, however, have yet to scientifically demonstrate any positive cognitive effects on children. Given how little is currently known about the mechanisms of brain development, the causes (and effects) of developmental delays, and the role of so many other aspects of popular culture in cognitive development, it's hard to know how these adaptive and intelligent toys may influence children.

Related posts:

Mind Games: Humans, Dolphins and Computers
Embryogenesis (and mechanisms of brain development)
Learning Like a Child (and possible effects of developmental delay)
Review: Everything Bad is Good For You (cognitive effects of popular culture)


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