How to build an anti-bullying robot

Theatre and role play with social robots will help children learn bullying intervention skills

Children who have been bullied or have witnessed a friend being bullied often suffer in silence, not knowing how to process their traumatic experiences or respond to bullying in the future. 

Elaheh (Ellie) Sanoubari (PhD in progress) wants to change that by using social robots and games to help children understand bullying and develop skills to intervene. 

“You can’t put two children together and ask them to role-play bullying. It could end badly,” said Sanoubari, a PhD student in the Department of Systems Design Engineering. “But we can use social robots as a proxy for role-playing so children can control their behaviours and practise intervention strategies in a safe, private and playful setting.”  

Sanoubari is currently building a new drama-based game called RE-Mind — Robots Empowering Minds. In this game, a child can watch a bullying-related scenario played out by robots and enact in the role play by controlling a bystander robot.  

Elaheh (Ellie) Sanoubari (PhD in progress)

Ellie Sanoubari (PhD in progress) 


Building meaning through drama 

This idea set the engineer on an unlikely path to the University of Waterloo’s theatre and performance program. “I have always loved theatre and drama. In many ways, robots remind me of that world, especially social robots because when you design them to act out social human interaction, what you are essentially doing is creating a performance with the robot,” she said. 

Sanoubari’s supervisor is Kerstin Dautenhahn, director of the Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Laboratory and Canada 150 Research Chair in Intelligent Robotics. Dautenhahn suggested that Sanoubari bring in an applied theatre expert to support her work and introduced her to Professor Andrew (Andy) Houston from the Faculty of Arts. 

Applied theatre is the practice of using drama techniques to evoke reflection and learning in order to bring about social change. “I had never heard of applied theatre before speaking with Andy, and this new concept was a wonderland for me. I was seeing how it all connected to my work and it shaped my approach,” Sanoubari said. 

Houston explained that “when we see something enacted, and it affects us, it can change our thinking and what do we do with that experience.” This offers performers and the audience an opportunity to create meaning and understanding through a performance or by re-enacting a scenario. 

Professor Andrew (Andy) Houston from the Faculty of Arts

Andy Houston
Faculty of Arts

Sanoubari, Houston and Dautenhahn devised an idea to have children learn bullying intervention techniques by role-playing with a robot who would be the bystander in a peer-bullying story. Houston added, “We wanted to create a safe distance for the kids … it is hard to go back to a traumatic scenario. The robot creates that distance for the child.” 

During the research they asked children, with the support of their parents, to create fictional robots themselves using materials around their home. Sanoubari said, “This was all done to help the children create a sense of psychological ownership with the characters that they were building.” 


The team worked together to craft stories and scenarios that would prompt the children as they interacted with their robot character, but also let the children lead some of the storytelling and create fictional personalities for the characters. 

Sanoubari wanted to ensure her anti-bullying game captured the creativity and the rationale of the children who would ultimately be the users of the game. 

“It is important to involve the people using the technology from the get-go and build it with them. We wanted to go to children and see how they envision such a system.” 

Building interdisciplinary solutions 

As a theatre director and scholar, Houston and his work could be seen as very far removed from the world of robotics, but he said he is learning a lot from working with Sanoubari and the Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Lab.  

“Ellie sees these re-enactments and storytelling from a very different perspective than I do. It’s like working with someone who speaks an entirely different language,” he said. “What I enjoy about collaborating with other people who come from very different understandings of theatre is that they give me tremendous insight and wisdom into my practice and what we are creating.”  

Sanoubari agreed, and that is where robotics can learn from applied theatre and take a lead role in creating meaningful human-robot interactions. 

“My interests have always been very dynamic,” she said. “But what my work in the Social and Intelligent Robotics Research Lab has taught me is to re-think problems and that most problems in the world require building interdisciplinary solutions.” 


This issue is illustrated by Kathleen Fu (BAS ’17, MARCH ’20). Kathleen is a graduate of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, and her current work is heavily inspired by her time studying architecture, city life and storytelling.