Sharifa Alghowinem: Pioneering Personal Robots to Navigate Social and Emotional Landscapes

10 September, 2023 - 3:00 pm (17 days ago)
1 min read

Sharifa Alghowinem, a research scientist from the Personal Robots Group (PRG) at the Media Lab, grew up dreaming of developing Arabic-based technologies and creating a robot capable of explaining emotions. Despite early challenges in understanding social cues and poor performance in standardized tests, Alghowinem pursued her dream, earning an undergraduate degree in computing and later a postdoc at MIT under the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship for Saudi Arabian Women.

Alghowinem’s work focuses on making robots more helpful to people. She collaborates with the social robot startup Jibo Inc., and its founder, MIT Professor and Dean for Digital Learning Cynthia Breazeal, to develop Jibo, a friendly robot companion. Jibo is designed to go beyond a transactional assistant, evolving into an insightful coach and companion that advances social robotics technologies and research.

Alghowinem’s research is primarily centered on mental health care and education. In one study, Jibo served as a coach, adapting his interventions based on verbal and non-verbal responses from participants. On another project, the robot was used to enhance parent-child interactions during story reading sessions. Alghowinem’s future vision for Jibo is to see the robot becoming a companion for the whole household, playing various roles from reminding elders to take medication, to being a playmate for children, and potentially being a preventative measure against depression or suicide.

Apart from her research, Alghowinem is also passionate about teaching and mentoring. She personally meets with her mentees every week and played a crucial role in bringing two undergraduate students from Prince Sultan University in Saudi Arabia to visit MIT. Alghowinem’s next project is to create opportunities for Syrian refugee children by using social robots to teach English language and social-emotional skills while preserving cultural heritage and Arabic abilities.

Alghowinem’s work in personal robotics bridges the gap between technology and our emotional world, providing innovative solutions for mental health care, education, and everyday living. Her vision for a robot companion integrated into households could revolutionize how we approach emotional wellness and mental health, making advanced technology not just a tool, but a companion in navigating the complexities of life.

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