By Alan Burns
A new partnership at the Social Science Research Center is combining computer science and the social sciences to improve quality of life.
The Social, Therapeutic and Robotic Systems Lab (STaRS) was created in 2011 at Mississippi State University (MSU). Dr. Cindy Bethel, an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, Billie J. Ball Endowed Professor in Engineering, and Principal Investigator/Director for the STaRS Lab, began the project when she joined MSU in 2011.
She explains that the lab was created to research the use of technology, specifically robots, and how they can be used to assist people and improve the quality of life.
“We perform research associated with human-robot interaction, human-computer interaction and interface design, affective computing, and artificial intelligence,” says Bethel. “Our focus areas are in therapeutic robots, the use of robots for gathering sensitive information especially from children, and robots integrated in law enforcement tactical teams.”
Dr. Bethel is joined by three Co-Principal Investigators: Drs. David May, Professor of Sociology, Deborah Eakin, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Melinda Pilkinton, Associate Professor of Social Work. The STaRS Lab has three graduate students: Zachary Henkel from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Kristen Stives from the Department of Sociology, and Ethan Flurry from the Department of Psychology. The lab also has several undergraduate students from the different departments.
The STaRS Lab is sustained through funding from both MSU and external entities. Grant funding for the lab has come from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Army Research Labs (ARL), Army Corp of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), FedEx, and Toyota Motor Corporation
During the summer of 2017, the STaRS Lab moved into a newly renovated lab space at the SSRC. The new lab space features two data collection rooms with state of the art sensors and recording equipment, one robot operator room with control stations for running robots for two studies at the same time with the ability to control the sound and recording equipment in each data collection room, student work space, and a waiting room area for participants and parents of the children who may be participating in our studies. The graduate students also have a work space located outside of the lab in the SSRC.
Current projects in the STaRS Lab include a therapeutic dog known as Therabot, the use of robots to interview children on sensitive subjects, and work with law enforcement involving robot and technology interactions.
Therabot is the attempt by Dr. Bethel and her students to produce a robotic, therapeutic support system that is shaped like a stuffed dog. The dog can be used in clinical settings for support during therapy, especially for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. The project, which includes responsiveness towards sounds and users, was funded by the NSF.
The Use of Robots as Intermediaries for Gathering Sensitive Information from Children,
known as the Interview Project, is seeking to learn if children are more comfortable sharing information with a robot compared to sharing with a human interviewer. The next phase of the project will look at understanding the willingness of a child to relay experiences with
bullying using a toy-like humanoid robot (NAO) and a life-like humanoid robot (Zack or Hannah) to compare with a human interviewer. This project is also funded by the NSF.
In its work with law enforcement, the STaRS Lab has a project called the Lassie Project and also works with integrating technology and robots in with Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. The Lassie Project involves building a prototype robot that is bullet resistant that can be used by law enforcement in different scenarios. This prototype is being built by students from Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science with future studies from Psychology, Criminology, and Sociology students.
“We are investigating whether technologies improve the stress levels of officers in training responses. We are looking at the use of distraction devices, such as strobe lights, flood lights, sirens, and other sounds, incorporated into a robot to provide added capabilities into their operations,” Bethel explains.
Bethel notes that the partnership between the SSRC and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering is beneficial with the new opportunities it presents.
“My research brings together the technical aspects of computer science and studies how these developments will interact with and impact humans,” she says. “This is a wonderful blend of two very important disciplines and the SSRC provides resources for us to be able to perform his type of interdisciplinary research in a positive and supportive environment.”
The STaRS Lab also has a big hand in training future generations of researchers, says Bethel. They usually have around 30 students working on different projects in the lab and are involved in community outreach and activities that promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
In the future, Bethel sees the lab growing and developing. She foresees the lab expanding into related areas and topics for future research, filling a need in the area of technology and human
“We are here to develop research that will be helpful to the world and we hope to improve the quality of life for those who use our developments,”