Meet the teacher, Mr. Robot

Can robots teach? In labs around the world, social robots are learning how to engage children and teach simple skills, reports the New York Times.

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of 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.

South Korea is using robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with English-teaching robots.  A UC-San Diego robot is teaching Finnish to preschoolers. At USC and University of Connecticut, children on the autism spectrum are interacting with robots.

Yes, it’s making people a bit nervous, though nobody thinks robots will replace human teachers.

When San Diego preschoolers pulled the arms off the RUBI robot, engineers programmed RUBI to cry when its arms were pulled. The children stopped pulling and  hugged the robot to stop it from crying.

RUBI significantly improved the vocabulary of nine preschoolers, researchers found.

At Honda Labs in Silicon Valley,  Asimo “taught grade-school students how to set a table — improving their accuracy by about 25 percent.”

In person they are not remotely humanlike, most of today’s social robots. Some speak well, others not at all. Some move on two legs, others on wheels. Many look like escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Robots that look human come across as creepy, researchers say.  The way to encourage social interaction is to make sure the robot responds at a natural rate.

In recent experiments at a day care center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

“The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up,” said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, “you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with.”

At the University of Connecticut, a French robot called Nao works with children on the autism spectrum. Controlled by a therapist,  Nao demonstrates “martial arts kicks and chops and urges the child to follow suit; then it encourages the child to lead.”

“I just love robots, and I know this is therapy, but I don’t know — I think it’s just fun,” said Sam, an 8-year-old from New Haven with Asperger’s syndrome, who recently engaged in the therapy.

This simple mimicry seems to build a kind of trust, and increase sociability, said Anjana Bhat, an assistant professor in the department of education who is directing the experiment. “Social interactions are so dependent on whether someone is in sync with you,” Dr. Bhat said. “You walk fast, they walk fast; you go slowly, they go slowly — and soon you are interacting, and maybe you are learning.”

Georgia Tech scientists are trying to teach robots to understand nonverbal cues, so they’ll know when a child is confused or tuned out.

Robot teachers: sinister machines or patient helpers?

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