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Robot Toddlers Show Scientists a Child's Learning Process

Nov 30, 2016 07:40 AM EST
iCub has been giving researchers vital clues as to how children acquire new words
An iCub robot built by the Italian Institute of Technology tracks and grabs a red ball in the Robotville exhibition at the Science Museum in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

A humanoid robot toddler called iCub has been giving psychologists vital clues as to how children acquire new words. This discovery indicates that early learning in children is not based on conscious thought. Instead, they have an automatic ability to associate objects that enables infants to quickly understand their environment.

Dr. Katie Twomey from Lancaster University, with Dr. Jessica Horst from Sussex University, and Dr. Anthony Morse and Professor Angelo Cangelosi from the Plymouth University had encoded iCub to have the same proportions as a three-year-old child. Through the use of simple software that allowed the robot to hear words spoken through a microphone and see images with a camera. iCub was trained to point at new items and try to identify them to paint the picture of how young children can learn a language by acquiring new words.

"We know that two-year-old children can work out the meaning of a new word based on words they already know," said Dr. Twomey. "That is, our toddler can work out that the new word 'giraffe' refers to a new toy when they can also see two others, called 'duck' and 'rabbit.'"

Using a strategy known as "mutual exclusivity," toddlers use a process of elimination to connect seemingly different pieces of information to form a conclusion. The best way to illustrate this is by associating colors with names: the if the brown toy is the "rabbit," and the yellow toy is the "duck," then the orange toy must be "giraffe." By exposing iCub to several familiar toys and a new one, researchers discovered that it processes information the same way a toddler does.

"This new study shows that mutual exclusivity behavior can be achieved with a very simple 'brain' that just learns associations between words and objects. In fact, intelligent as iCub seems, it actually can't say to itself, 'I know that the brown toy is a rabbit, and I know that that the yellow toy is a duck, so this new toy must be giraffe' because its software is too simple," concluded Dr. Twomey. "This suggests that at least some aspects of early learning are based on an astonishingly powerful association making ability which allows babies and toddlers to rapidly absorb information from the very complicated learning environment."

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