The United States Government Wants Robots To Start Teaching Your Children Fitness

Let's be honest - our modern eating habits are beyond awful, to say nothing of the sedentary lifestyle most people these days tend to live. It's bad enough that my own generation insists on living with such habits, but we're inflicting it on our children, too. Over the past thirty years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. It's at the point of being a full-blown epidemic.

Clearly, something needs to be done. 

On Wednesday, the National Science Foundation stepped up to the plate, announcing that it has committed $10 million towards the construction of robots that it hopes will serve as "personal trainers" for children. The NSF hopes that with these robots, kids will be encouraged both to exercise and to eat healthier food. The government so far has spent $2.15 million on the project, known as "Robots Helping Kids."

The project aims to develop "a new breed of socially assistive robots." In addition to encouraging kids to exercise and appreciate physical fitness, the robots will teach kids to read, overcome learning disabilities, and learn English if it's their second language. 

"Just like a good personal trainer, we want the robots to be able to guide the child toward a behavior that we desire," explained Brian Scassellati, a computer science professor at Yale. "What we want to do is move these robots out of the laboratory and into schools and homes and clinics, places where we can directly help children on a day-to-day basis."

According to the NSF, the grant for the project was granted to them as the result of "critical societal problems" related to health and obesity. Scassellati hopes that Yale's robots will eventually influence every aspect of children's lives. The end goal is to make a new breed of machine that'll help tackle one of the most significant epidemics in modern society; a machine capable of establishing a "healthy relationship of trust and respect" with children. 

"We want them to help children learn language, we want to help them learn better eating habits, we want them to learn new social or cognitive skills through their interactions with these robots," he continued. "And the robots will be supporting with the efforts we already have with human therapists, and their parents, and their communities. The robots will supplement those activities and allow us to give children more continuous and more detailed support."

 "At the end of five years we'd like to have robots that can guide a child toward long-term educational goals, be customized for the particular needs of that child, and basically grow and develop with the child. We want the robot to be the equivalent of a good personal trainer."

Along with Yale and the National Science Foundation, Willow Garage, The University of Southern California, MIT, Stanford, and Tufts University are listed as partners in the research. 

Scassellati was quick to caution that his robots would not "replace" humans. Rather, they'll provide additional attention and guidance for kids. Basically, they'll augment the efforts already directed at children's health. 

"If we're successful in this, we think we can make a real difference in the lives of children," he said. "And we think that we can produce some of the most interesting, the most engaging, and the most competent social robots that we've ever seen."