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Get ready for the robot invasion — of our classrooms

by Rowan Hooper

Contributing Writer

The idea of using robots in classrooms to teach our children is unsettling to many people. Fumihide Tanaka of the University of Tsukuba’s Department of Intelligent Interaction Technologies, however, uses a technique that cleverly allays fears of robot superiority. He uses robots in the role of novices in the classroom. “Our solutions do not replace humans but help humans to feel, think and act,” he says.

Rather than the conventional roles of the robots as the teachers or caretakers of children, in Tanaka’s method, this is reversed. The robots are the slow learners and they are taken care of by children. These are a class of robot known as care-receiving robots (CRR). “Our vision is to unlock, actualize, and empower human abilities with the help of these technologies,” Tanaka says.

For much of his work, Tanaka uses the Nao robot from SoftBank Robotics, a small humanoid robot at 58 centimeters tall. When the robot joined Japanese children age 3 to 6 learning English, it deliberately made mistakes that could be corrected by the children. Tests showed this method engaged children far better than using tablet software or some other form of technology. Children, more than adults, take very readily to interacting with robots.

In another test, children with poor handwriting worked with a humanoid robot who had even worse trouble writing. Through teaching the robot how to write, the children were forced to confront their own handwriting, and they made efforts to improve it.

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on here. Not only were the children learning to self-reflect and consider their own handwriting, the interaction made them interpret the internal state of the robot. It increased each child’s empathy.

I love that the things many people fear are completely lacking in empathy — like robots — can be a force for improving it in us.

The care-receiving method is considered ethically safer and more acceptable to a wider range of societies, says Tanaka. Not surprisingly, studies have found that human teachers are wary of allowing robots into their classrooms. Teachers tend not to trust them, and insist on full control over robots in the classroom. They also prefer the robots to act as “buddies” to children, rather than as an actual teacher. These findings fit with Tanaka’s approach.

Tanaka has just published a wide-ranging review of the benefits of robot tutors in the classroom (see the journal Science Robotics, DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aat). Using robots can help augment teaching when there is growing demand for personalized curriculums even as school budgets are being cut and classrooms are getting bigger

Tanaka’s review shows that the physical presence of a robot increased learning efficiency in comparison to other technologies. It was more effective than just using an interactive whiteboard or an educational app on a tablet, since its presence added the skill of social interaction to the class.

In some simple teaching tasks, robots were also found to be as good as humans in improving the child’s ability.

Small robots such as Nao are encouraged for younger children, while older kids can deal with larger machines such as Pepper (120 centimeters tall), also made by SoftBank Robotics. Pepper can personalize its interaction by remembering students’ names, and by mimicking human behavior. It can tilt its head to indicate that it is listening when a child is speaking, make gestures and utter empathic comments and noises.

I’ve seen children and adults interacting with Pepper and Nao. It’s almost impossible not to be charmed by the robots. People talk to them with a smile on their face; there is a sense of wonder in the interaction.

With human teachers, however, the feelings may be different if they fear for their jobs.

Robots are accepted more in classrooms in South Korea and Japan than in Western countries. In the West, privacy, concerns about unemployment (jobs being lost to robots) and technical deficiencies are cited as reasons to resist the advance of robots into schools. However, as Tanaka’s work is showing, robots are not replacing teachers, but helping them get the best out of children.

Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist magazine. He tweets at @rowhoop and his new book, “Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability,” is out now.