Seeing Marina smile, Dr. Javier Movellan started wondering whether it was his 3 month old baby’s way of communicating. According to Movellan, he felt a strong vibe that the baby was trying to say something to him, but he also found it ridiculous at the same time.
This is why Movellan along with his team of scientists gathered data taken from an old study for analyzing face to face interactions of over a dozen 4 month old babies and their mommies. What they mainly wanted to note was the number of times the mothers and their babies smiled.
The findings revealed that the babies weren’t simply smiling as a reaction to their mothers; they were smiling to get their mothers to smile back. What’s more, the babies made their moms smile as much as they could while the babies themselves were smiling the least that they could.
As Movellan is an expert in robotics, he tried to test out this hypothesis on a robot baby programmed to act like a real one. Using this robo-baby, the scientists found out that babies don’t smile randomly. In fact, their smiles are purposeful to get positive responses from mom.
Movellan noted that earlier during the smile games, the babies are considerably intentional and active. They also have their own agenda. Instead of randomly smiling back at their parents, they smile to get their parents to do what the babies wish for them to do.
In simpler terms, babies are far more intelligent during social situations than we believed. It’s not just their mothers who are orchestrating interactions with them; the babies are in fact, the ones who run the show.
This is where the robot was quite informative. Being programmed to behave like the infants from the previously carried out study, the baby interacted with several student volunteers for separate sessions of 30 minutes each.
When the researchers transplanted the infants’ strategies into the robot baby, they started having the effect that was predicted. They started maximizing the number of times the volunteers smiled whereas the amount of times the robot had to smile in return was minimized.
Although a robot baby that smiles doesn’t necessarily promise a lot of practical usage from a technological perspective, the findings of Movellan and
his team can definitely open up the possibilities for more scientists to design robots that can imitate social interactions between parents and their babies. One day, such findings will be able to help scientists monitor the social development of children.
According to Movellan himself, this finding has opened up new avenues through which atypical development can be studied. For instance, is it possible that autistic children lag behind in terms of social intentions, or is it that they have varying social intentions as compared to typical developing children?