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Handwashing robot can help children form a new habit

Posted October 31, 2019

Do you wash your hands regularly? How regularly? Do you remember when you started doing that? When you’re a kid you tend to skip boring tasks like that. You want to go out and play and not get bogged down by some tedious hand washing. Now scientists the University of Glasgow in Scotland and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in India have created a  hand-shaped robot, dubbed ‘Pepe’, which will teach children to wash hands more often.

It is a good idea to wash your rings together with hands. Image credit: Angelsharum via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The reason you wash your hands more often now than when you were a child, is a habit. Once you form a habit, it is difficult to get rid of it. And so you keep washing your hands even if you did not do that as a child. And that’s for the better. But it is important to teach children to wash hands as early as possible and a friendly robot is a good way to achieve that.

Scientists created Pepe and mounted him to the wall above a handwashing station at the Wayanad Government Primary School in Kerala. There was also a screen, which allowed researchers to tele-operate the robot’s mouth to speak to the pupils and draw their attention to a poster outlining the steps of effective ways to wash hands. Pepe had eyes, which created an illusion that the robot is watching kids washing hands. It may sound weird and maybe slightly creepy, but Pepe did its job very well.

Pepe boosted rates of handwashing between those kids by 40%. 95 % of children who had interactions with Pepe could determine the best way to wash hands with soap. And they were doing it –  spent on average twice as long washing their hands after Pepe’s arrival. But scientists made some other interesting observations as well.

90 % of children liked Pepe, 67 % of them thought it was a boy, which was probably because of the voice given to the robot. Interestingly, 60% said Pepe was younger than them – like a younger brother or sister. Finally, 70 % thought that Pepe was actually alive.

Pepe was a huge success, but should such robots be used more widely? Dr Amol Deshmukh, leader of the project, said: “Social robots could potentially create a positive impact in their lives, but they have rarely been tested with people from rural backgrounds in developing countries. This research helps in identifying a valuable and viable use case for social robots in rural populations in developing countries”.

Parents should pay more attention to their children’s habits. Once they get used to washing hands regularly, the problem is gone. Some discipline and positive reinforcement go a long way. And such playful ways like Pepe the robot could also be implemented in schools and kindergartens.


Source: University of Glasgow

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