Even as mobile personal assistants become more common and gain traction in the marketplace, we still have barely scratched the surface of the capabilities of this technology. Phys.org recently published an article about compelling research on empathic “comforting” chatbots. According to the article, Janneke van der Zwaan has written a doctoral thesis at the Delft University of Technology about her studies into how chatbots can help children who have been the victim of cyberbullying.
van der Zwaan created a virtual buddy named Robin that is a simplified virtual conversational agent. I tried out the empathic chatbot demo available from the project website. The Robin chatbot is animated and resembles a cute and harmless cartoon character. Actually Robin looks something like a pencil eraser with two eyes and a mouth. Robin has very limited conversational abilities, but he (it) can ask questions about instances of cyberbullying the child has experienced and the child can respond by selecting from multiple choice answers. Robin can also offer the child some tips on approaches to deal with cyberbullying
One aspect of the virtual buddy’s effectiveness is its facial expressions, which mimic the expression of humans. When the child responds with answers that indicate he or she is being cyberbullied, Robin makes a sad face. The sad face is also presented if the child selects any answers that indicate he or she is sad or frightened.
One of the things about this research that strikes me as so interesting is that evidence shows most children find comfort and relief in ‘talking’ to Robin, even though the dialogue is very simplistic. Some further information on the project explains that Robin combines a conversational model with an emotional model. Robin gains insight into the child’s emotional state and it also uses emotion to bolster the child’s self-confidence. Robin uses both words and simple facial expressions to convey emotion.
There’s a lot more to this study than what I’ve described here, so check out the project website for detailed information. There are lessons here that are likely to be applied to future virtual agents and personal assistants. Effective conversational interactions involve emotion and signals of empathy as much as they do an exchange of words.