Robots as teachers: how much can we learn from machines?

Robots are now capable of teaching rudimentary skills. And they are quick learners as well.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

Exchange between a robot and the main character, Ellen Ripley, in the movie Aliens:
Ripley: "You never said anything about an android being on board!"
Bishop [the android]: "I prefer the term 'Artificial Person' myself."

It may turn out that interfacing with too life-like "artificial people" may be a turn-off to many. However, it's clear that machines -- in one form or another -- are ready to assume some important teaching roles. A New York Times report describes how researchers have begun to employ robots as teachers in various situations for teaching young children basic skills. As the report observes, "highly programmed machines that can engage people and teach them simple skills, including household tasks, vocabulary or... elementary imitation and taking turns."

But robots are also quick learners themselves, and have potential to function as "infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism."

Right now, most robots are assemblages of cameras and exposed moving parts. As the report puts it: "Many look like escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys." And, it may not be worthwhile to attempt to create life-like robots: “It turns out that making a robot more closely resemble a human doesn’t get you better social interactions,” said Terrence J. Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at University of California, San Diego. "The more humanlike machines look, the more creepy they can seem. The machine’s behavior is what matters."

And results matter as well. Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. reports that an experimental robot developed at the university, RUBI, has helped preschool children "to score significantly better on tests, compared with less interactive learning, as from tapes... Preliminary results suggest that these students 'do about as well as learning from a human teacher,' Movellan said. “Social interaction is apparently a very important component of learning at this age.” Other studies have also found similar positive results for robot-based learning.

However, teachers shouldn't fear for their jobs anytime soon -- the roles seen for these machines are to supplement classroom learning. Plus, in one instance cited in the Times story, two boys pulled the robot's arms out of its sockets. If that would have happened to a human teacher, he or she surely would have had them writing an apology on the board a few hundred times over.

(Photo: Honda's lifelike Asimo robots can move about and perform a range of tasks. Is teaching next?)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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