Students, meet your new teacher, Mr Robot

The New York Times
Last Updated : 14 July 2010, 11:52 IST

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“Like Simon Says,” says the autistic boy’s mother, seated next to him on the floor. Yet soon he begins to withdraw; in a video of the session, he covers his ears and slumps against the wall.

But the companion, a three-foot-tall robot being tested at the University of Southern California, maintains eye contact and performs another move, raising one arm up high.
Up goes the boy’s arm — and now he is smiling at the machine.

In a handful of laboratories around the world, computer scientists are developing robots like this one: highly programmed machines that can engage people and teach them simple skills, including household tasks, vocabulary or, as in the case of the boy, playing, elementary imitation and taking turns.

So far, the teaching has been very basic, delivered mostly in experimental settings, and the robots are still works in progress, a hackers’ gallery of moving parts that, like mechanical savants, each do some things well at the expense of others.

Help treat problems

Yet the most advanced models are fully autonomous, guided by artificial intelligence software like motion tracking and speech recognition, which can make them just engaging enough to rival humans at some teaching tasks.

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 problems like autism.

Already, these advances have stirred dystopian visions, along with the sort of ethical debate usually confined to science fiction. “I worry that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as the instructor,” said Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they will see it as the master.”

Most computer scientists reply that they have neither the intention, nor the ability, to replace human teachers. The great hope for robots, said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences , “is that with the right kind of technology at a critical period in a child’s development, they could supplement learning in the classroom.”
Lessons from RUBI

“Kenka,” says a childlike voice. “Ken-ka.”

Standing on a polka-dot carpet at a preschool on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, a robot named RUBI is teaching Finnish to a 3-year-old boy.

RUBI looks like a desktop computer come to life: its screen-torso, mounted on a pair of shoes, sprouts mechanical arms and a lunchbox-size head, fitted with video cameras, a microphone and voice capability. RUBI wears a bandanna around its neck and a fixed happy-face smile, below a pair of large, plastic eyes.

It picks up a white sneaker and says kenka, the Finnish word for shoe, before returning it to the floor. “Feel it; I’m a kenka.” In a video of this exchange, the boy picks up the sneaker, says “kenka, kenka” — and holds up the shoe for the robot to see. 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. They make for very curious company. The University of Southern California robot used with autistic children tracks a person throughout a room,  approaching indirectly  and pulling up just short of personal space.

The machine’s only words are exclamations (“Uh huh” for those drawing near; “Awww” for those moving away). Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that some living thing is close by. That sensation, however vague, is enough to facilitate a real exchange of information. In the San Diego classroom where RUBI has taught Finnish, researchers are finding that the robot enables 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,” said Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California. “Social interaction is apparently a very important component of learning at this age.”

Published 13 July 2010, 16:54 IST

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