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Please sir, can you explain something?

Please sir, can you explain something?

It had to happen. Robotic devices can carry out delicate operations on human beings’ bodies directly or remotely. Battlefield robots can discover and disarm explosive devices. Warfare itself can now be waged across continents without protagonists leaving their desks.

So robots teaching in classrooms is surely a logical step?

Already Here!

In South Korea they are already teaching English to young children, with what Squidoo described as ‘mixed reviews’. Each is a ‘telepresence bot’, controlled by teachers in the Philippines. It has two-way video and audio for interaction with students, and can move its arms around to make a point. The LED shows the teacher’s face or an animated CG face.’

Japan is determined to put a robot in every home by 2015 and according to Fox News in 2009 it started using them in Tokyo schools. ‘Saya’ took 15 years to develop and was first used as a receptionist for companies aiming to cut costs. She/It is an android with ‘a range of human expressions’.

They promised that Saya the teacher is ‘multilingual, can organize set tasks for pupils, call the roll and get angry when the kids misbehave’. Now the subject is getting serious with some forms of robotic teaching/learning becoming ever more likely in many countries.

The Race Is On

According to Liz Lightfoot in the Sunday Times (17 February 2013), scientists are pushing ahead analysing the ‘personal, empathetic and human qualities that make a good teacher’. They will then program them into a robot. They want to ‘endow the robot with social skills to interact with people in a similar way to humans’.

The idea is billed as finding new ways of improving teaching and learning, but obviously the potential market is enormous and early entrants will corner it, they believe.

Several versions are in development. One identified by Lightfoot is a small robot, not much bigger than a large doll, which will work one-to-one with children who will communicate through touch-screens with their unusual teachers.

The key to success will be if the artificial device can recognise emotions from children’s body language, facial expressions and verbal responses and compare them successfully with their databases.

Disciplinarian Robots, A Different Animal Altogether

Scientists claim that robots will sense when a child/student is upset, non-responsive or not understanding and offer ‘appropriate comfort and support’. Whether it will apply appropriate discipline is another matter altogether and has not really been addressed yet.

Scientists who spoke to Lightfoot for the article insisted robots would work alongside teachers and will not replace them. Perhaps understandably, some teaching union leaders have dismissed this and reacted sceptically against the concept.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, made two pertinent points about robots:

  • ‘when a robot can crack the right sort of joke with a morose teenager and give an encouraging smile to a nervous 11-year old at the right moment, then perhaps we’ll worry’ and
  • ‘if they could empty the staff dishwasher and staple the displays to the wall, we might just welcome them.’

As far as the second point goes, relative uncomplex robots can do those simple tasks right now. It’s the degree of human-likeness, the subtleties of human interplay, proximity, nuances of meaning that will determine whether they succeed in teaching or not.

Whatever we think now, as kids, students, parents or grandparents, teachers or other staff fearful of losing out to androids in the workforce, the next generation of these robotic teachers will be literal mind-readers as well as metaphorical ones as now.

How do we like that?


Squidoo, Will Robots Replace Human Teachers?

CNet News, Korean schools welcome more robot teachers, December 2010

Fox News, Robot Teacher Makes Debut at Japanese School, March 2009

Artificial Intelligence May Pose the Greatest Threat to Humanity’s Survival, 5 February 2013

How Touching Has Become the Big Communication Idea, 19 March 2012

Defence and Technology, 6 March 2012

The NHS and New Technology, 25 January 2012

Schools Not Always in Front Line of Technology Teaching, 4 July 2012

Image:US Federal Government