By Kal Kaur
IntroductionIn Practice...Application of Robot Teachers in the Classroom EthicsReferences
Child cognitive development has become a key focal point for researchers wanting to unravel the secrets behind children’s interaction with other humans and how this helps their ability to communicate and learn with their peers. We are now beginning to see a growing interest in the application of robots to interact with children to analyse this emotional and attentional exchange. One of the biggest obstacles to personal robotics is their ability to interact with humans – communication only possible with a robot that has all of the sensory elements required for a complex dialogue exchange with humans.
One effort to observe interaction with children and analyse their development and learning has involve the implementation of robotic teachers into school classrooms. It really is a question of just when we’ll see robots integrating with our everyday lives and that time is closer than we think. A team of researchers at the National Science Foundation project and the University of Southern California are working on the development of robots that could aid cognitive, social, and emotional development in children with disabilities. One of the objectives of this project led by Professor Maja Mataric is to create robots that can engage in a deeper level of cognitive interaction and to be able to learn from their own experiences so that they can understand personality traits and identify social cues.
To put this concept of robot–child interaction into better practice, let’s take a look at work by Latitude, an international research agency that has recently teamed up with the LEGO Learning Institute and Project Synthesis group to conduct a multi-phase innovation study that involved instructing children from across the globe to communicate (in the form of pictures and word) what it means to have robots as part of everyday life.
This study, conducted in late 2011, focussed on a child’s perception of an everyday robot. A total of 348 children, aged between 8 and 12 years from across the globe, were asked to imagine their lives with robots inhabiting their learning and play time and outside of learning hours. The main objectives of this study were to 1) identify any intersections that exist between a child’s learning and creativity and how the use of a robotic teacher could help maintain this connection and, if anything, enhance it; 2) the kind of expectations a child has for their relationship with a robot; and 3) how can a robot isolate particular opportunities to facilitate a child’s learning and cognitive development.
Based on a study group of 348 subjects, 64% of these children described robots to be natural and human-like companions. When considering robots as integrated circuits, 20% of children saw robots as part of their peer groups. Only 28% of children related to robots as if they were like humans. Finally, there was a balance between children who wanted a robot to play with (38%) and those children who wanted a robot to learn with (38%). The study demonstrates the need to understand how a child perceives human–robot interaction before plans to install such technology into a classroom environment.
Interactive robots are designed to be voice and touch sensitive to increase the level of personalization with such technology and encourage intimacy, communication and semantic learning between the child and robot. One point to highlight from this study was the large number of children reporting the robot as a human-like companion, which supports the suggestion of in-classroom robots to encourage learning and creativity among students. This finding also indicates that, when understanding human–robot interaction from a child’s mind, the robot is not going to judge the child for its learning ability or inability, which demonstrates the need to create a humanoid teaching robot that can display a friendly and welcoming attitude to increase the chances of trust during the introductory phase of communication between the two entities.
It should also be noted that this study demonstrates how children as young as 8 years of age are able to acknowledge the concept of integrating with robots and having them as part of their everyday lives.
Application of Robot Teachers in the Classroom
In Japan, we are already seeing the use of humanoid robots in the classroom setting. Take the following video as an inspiring example of Genius, a substitute robot teacher that delivers a lecture to the students. Though at first glance Genius looks slightly terrifying, the aim of the researchers behind this project was to introduce children to a new age of learning by starting with the application of robots that could one day dominate schools across the world.
In South Korea, robot teachers have already been introduced into classrooms. Since January 2010, the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) have been keen to roll out the R-learning system – a robot-based learning system for childhood education. The aim of the project is to have the majority of kindergartens in Korea implementing the R-learning system by 2013. From a hierarchical standpoint, the teacher will guide the development of R-learning content and teach children by applying a robot. The robot will support learning by encouraging self-regulating study. One particular intelligent robot already in application by the MEST is Genibo edu – a robot that focuses on ‘play-based learning’ to enhance social and emotional development in children, and help a child develop initiative (see video below).
Genibo edu is made up of touch sensors and has a series of voice, sound, and vision recognition components to enhance communication between the child and the robot. The robot is also engineered with a theme activity that includes content based on kindergarten curriculum set by the Korean government on learning and development.
The MEST project hasn’t stopped the application of robots at the pre-school phase of child learning and development; the society have created a secondary teacher (IROBIQ) that assists learning in large/small group activities including systematic learning (see video below). In contrast to Genibo, IROBIQ is designed to display emotional expression to encourage a child’s imagination and improve social interaction in a child.
Despite clear examples of the development and application of robot teachers in classroom setting, there will always be the question of how ethically sounds is this practice and does it benefit the child’s development and learning capabilities on a long-term basis. On difficulty in assessing child–robot interaction is the problem of determining whether the child’s personal development is a result of genetic traits or influenced by its environment. Future research needs to address how to build a robot with a sense of ethics and how to make electronic lifeforms safe enough to limit concerns about their interaction with children.