Soon, robots may help in teaching kids

A robot, developed by researchers at the University of California (UC), San Diego, has already shown that it can improve significantly how well kids learn words.

The researchers are now developing a new version of the droid which they say could also be able to wheel around the classroom, the LiveScience reported.

The idea to develop the robot, called RUBI, came to Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at UC, when he was in Japan for research involving robots and his kids were in a child care centre.

Movellan and his colleagues started working on RUBI in 2004. It is about 2.5 feet high, “about the same size as the kids, to be less intimidating and improve interactions”, Movellan said.

RUBI’s chest holds a video screen, and its head is equipped with cameras, microphones, audio speakers, large plastic eyes and a cheery tuft of plastic that sticks up like a bird’s plume.

The researchers designed RUBI to work with 18-to 24-month-old infants. It did not survive its first experience unscathed.

“We were really excited about this beautiful robot arm we put on RUBI,” Movellan said. “In two hours, the children had completely destroyed it.”

In response, the scientists put sensors in for RUBI to detect any damage “and then cry when it was in danger, and the kids stopped,” Movellan said. “If we wanted RUBI to teach, the first thing it had to do was survive.”

The kids naturally had to want to interact with RUBI, and the best learning was seen when children spent four or more uninterrupted minutes with the robot. “We found that subtle changes in the parameters of timing, such as motions of RUBI’s head, had huge effects on the interactions we observed between children and the robot,” Movellan said.

When the researchers got the timing right, making it seem alive, the children followed where RUBI’s gaze went and eagerly pointed in those directions.

After 12 weeks with the robot, the kids’ knowledge of 10 words that RUBI taught them improved significantly, the scientists found, while the children’s knowledge of 10 words the robot did not teach failed to improve.

“Every time the kids did something right, RUBI would say, ‘excellent’, and the kids would be happy,” Movellan said.

“Also, by learning about social interactions from a computational point of view, we can learn how to enable computers to interact with humans the way we interact with each other.”

Movellan detailed his work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

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