Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist in MIT’s Personal Robots Group, has always dreamt of developing Arabic-based technologies and creating a robot that can navigate the complexities of human emotions. Through her work with MIT’s Jibo, a friendly robot companion, Alghowinem has been exploring the potential for companion robots to provide emotional support to individuals.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Alghowinem faced difficulties with understanding social cues and struggled academically. However, her dreams led her to pursue a career in computing and eventually brought her to MIT. As a postdoc, Alghowinem was able to work on a technology that could explain human emotions in both English and Arabic.
One of Alghowinem’s projects involved coaching young and older adults using Jibo. The robot would adapt its interventions based on the verbal and non-verbal responses of participants, responding with empathy when deep emotions were disclosed and asking gentle follow-up questions when emotions were not fully expressed. Another project focused on how a robot could support parent-child interactions while reading a storybook together.
Alghowinem envisions Jibo becoming a companion for the whole household, taking on different roles with different family members. She is particularly interested in Jibo’s potential to play a role in emotional wellness and as a preventative measure for depression or suicide. By integrating Jibo into daily life, the robot can detect emerging concerns and intervene, acting as a confidential resource or mental health coach.
In addition to her work with robots, Alghowinem is passionate about teaching and mentoring others. She ensures that she meets individually with the students she mentors every week and has been instrumental in creating opportunities for visiting undergraduate students from Saudi Arabia to visit MIT.
Currently, Alghowinem is working on a fundraising project to equip social robots to teach English language and social-emotional skills to children who are refugees from Syria. The aim is to provide support, preserve cultural heritage, and enhance Arabic abilities.
Alghowinem’s work highlights the potential of companion robots in providing emotional support, coaching, and education. With Jibo, she aims to make a positive impact on individuals’ well-being and help them navigate the complexities of the world around them.
– MIT Media Lab
– MIT News