A Look at the Benefits and Challenges of Android-Powered Education

It’s the first day of school in a South Korean classroom. The door swings open as children scurry to their seats. But rather than a human teacher waiting at the chalkboard, a robot greets the class. A white and yellow tower on wheels, the robot has a screen face, moveable arms and has the capability to make gestures. Developed by Yujin Robot in Seoul, Robosem is a telepresence-focused robot that teaches English — in a country where certified English teachers are scarce.

The robot relies on either teleconferencing with a human instructor or preloaded, autonomous lessons powered by artificial intelligence software, like motion tracking and speech recognition.

South Korea is one of the more aggressive corners of the world implementing classroom robotics, including an initiative to place one in every kindergarten program, and the phenomenon is quickly spreading.

But will robots one day replace teachers?

“No. Never. Ever. Ever,” said Brian David Johnson, Intel futurist and author of “21st Century Robot,” a book written about Johnson’s open-source programmable humanoid robot Jimmy.

“Inherently, education is about people, but robots can be excellent extensions of parents and teachers at home and in the classroom.”

Robots inhabit our imaginations and are, let’s face it, really cool, he said.

Johnson sees that for children with different learning styles or learning disabilities, robots can be excellent teachers and learning companions. They can give a child unfettered attention, something nearly impossible for one teacher to in front of a classroom full of students.

“Unlike computers or tablets, robots are social and can connect with children,” he said.

In Birmingham, England, a robot named Nao helps teach children with autism. Because a robot has no concept of personal space or awkwardness, Nao can teach without setting off a chain of unsuccessful social interactions.

Nao is available on the market direct for just under $8,000.

Nao’s parents, Aldebaran Robotics, also have an education portal for discounted pricing and teacher resources. Beyond being an educator, Nao’s not too bad on the soccer pitch either, as it’s also the official robot used by the RoboCup league.

Also from the United Kingdom, the University of Hertfordshire-developedKaspar also helps autistic children.

Specially designed with a human-like face and the tacit complexities therein, Kaspar helps teach facial expressions and appropriate physical contact, creating a safer learning environment for special needs children.

Here in the United States, a robot named RUBI runs through repeated exercises to teach foreign languages to preschoolers in California.

Spearheaded by the University of California, San Diego, RUBI has proven quite successful at teaching language cooperation, though not quite as successful at convincing children it’s not a toy. (As reported in this New York Times feature, poor RUBI lost its arms by the end of the day).

Classrooms use robots mostly for very specific and repetitive tasks, such as vocabulary, attendance and behavior imitation. This type of Artificial Intelligence-powered technology can learn as it teaches, in tandem of creating a persona (albeit artificial) of unbridled knowledge and limitless patience.

But how does the robot learn?

In part, psychologists study the informational hotspots that attract toddlers and young children as language develops. As more robots enter classrooms, specialists can study the interactions and make adjustments that combine technology with the latest childhood development findings.

On the software side, education tech firms such as Desire2Learn use transcript data to help college students select classes based on prior successes and degree requirements. Such advanced software and sophisticated robotics create the perfect combination for a smart connected classroom.

Of course, any conversation concerning a robot performing human tasks can bring to mind either the Jetsons or the Terminator.

A recent Pew Research poll finds technologists and engineers split on whether AI in the workforce will create or destroy more jobs. But many computer scientists have expressed that they have neither the desire nor the ability to engineer a scholastic machine competitive with a human educator, and the current fleet of robot teachers reflect that sentiment.

“Robots hold a special place in our culture,” says Johnson.

He believes robots can be excellent assistants, but they are still just machines, lacking in human emotional intelligence.

“All technology is a tool — just different types of hammers. Technology frees humans up to do what their really good at.”

So far, classroom robots seem to have proven successful with the most basic components of behavioral education and cognitive learning. But what happens when technology becomes more intelligent? What happens when Skynet becomes aware?

Still, as Johnson and others point out, the spontaneity, intuitiveness and overall emotional intelligence of humans makes us hard to beat when it comes to teaching.