WALL-E becomes a teacher? Robotics labs around the world are experimenting with a new role for robots: educator. The concept behind it is simple, namely that interactive teaching is much more effective than the passive kind. So it makes sense that RUBI, a University of California San Diego, MIT, and University of Joensuu robot that was tasked with teaching nine toddlers Finnish, had results on par with a human—and significantly better than language tapes. In general, researchers see robots as a supplement to human teachers, not a replacement. Though many of the ‘bots can internalize and scaffold information—making future decisions based on past experiences—there are obvious limitations. Interestingly, the ‘bots are most effective with younger and/or autistic children, who ostensibly can get past the fact that their playmate/teacher is not human, and can then interact with them. Autistic children particularly benefit from the robots’ unlimited patience, a quality no human can replicate, and the ability of robots to perfectly mimic the child’s movements, one of the main ways (“synchronization”) that such children relate to others. As for the future, engineers are convinced they can fine tune how robots “learn” so that it’s mostly self-guided. Then the question might be not if robots can be teachers but how and when. And then the NEA will need to decide: Organize the robots or not?

Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot,” by Benedict Carey and John Markoff, New York Times, July 10, 2010

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