UM and UC San Diego search for insight into infant brains

LITE BRITE: Researchers are recording the patterns created by the lights as the baby moves. Lindsay Brown//Photo Editor

No, it’s not science fiction. Baby robots capable of learning will soon be born.

Researchers at the University of Miami, in collaboration with a team from the University of California San Diego, are building a baby robot that can learn in order to enhance their studies on the learning process for human babies.

It all began when Dr. Daniel Messinger, an associate professor of psychology and pediatrics, was approached by scientists at UC San Diego to develop this project. Messinger, who has studied the importance of facial expressions in children with autism, was excited to take on the project.

“What I’ve always been interested in is the process of social interaction, so if I look at you, you nod, if you look at me, I smile,” Messinger said. “And that also happens with babies and their parents. In turn, that kind of responsivity contributes to development.”

For the past six months, Messinger and his team in Miami have been studying babies between one and six months old as they play with their mothers. The mother and child are placed in a sound-proof chamber filled with toys to create the most natural environment possible for the infants.

While being observed, the baby wears a special onesie equipped with lights at specific points that are captured by a camera.

“It’s surprising that the babies don’t pay attention to the lights,” said Juan Artigas, a research associate in the department of psychology.

The movement of these lights are examined next to a video of the mother and baby to determine patterns in the way that the babies move and respond to stimuli.

“We’ve studied how babies respond, but we’ve never gotten to the stage of asking ‘what’s the baby going to do now?’” Messinger said.

That’s where the baby robot comes into play. A 1.3-meter-long robot built to resemble a one-year-old infant is being constructed at UC San Diego. The robot’s name is Diego-San and it will help the researchers try to understand how babies determine what actions they take.

“If you are building a robot you can’t just say the robot will be like this, you need to figure out how to get it to make its next move,” Messinger said.

The babies in the study teach the researchers how to program the robot, and in training the robot the researchers learn more about the process of human behavior development.

“The data shows how patterns develop in babies,” said Whit Mattson, a second year graduate student working on the project. “This helps us see how the robot will use that data to set up a pattern of movement.”

By using cameras and sensors in its hands, the robot can learn to see what it is doing by exploring as a real baby would.

“We would like it to be able to interact a little and grasp some objects,” Messinger said. “Our big goal is to make the robot learn to look at somebody and maybe request an object by reaching and looking at the subject.”

Alexandra Leon may be contacted at