One Japanese researcher, however, has designed a robot that instills the opposite image of our future, particularly in the minds of the children who use them.
Fumihide Tanaka's educational robots do not perform the role of an all-knowing teacher. Instead, they are built to help young students study English vocabulary and serve as classroom dunces who commonly make mistakes -- mistakes that a helpful student can correct.
By teaching a less intelligent robot, children reinforce their own learning and so become stronger students themselves, Tanaka believes, and research
Tanaka's creations fall into the category of "care-receiving robots," he said. As the name suggests, they require human companions to pay attention and show concern. The original concept was proposed in 2009.
Having developed both entertainment and educational robots as a former research engineer at Sony, Tanaka believed that a care-receiving robot would be ideal as an educational tool.
In published research
, he and a colleague wrote, "Most educational robots for children so far have been designed and developed to play the role of human teachers or caregivers. In fact, some robots have already been named explicitly as 'childcare robots.' "
But Tanaka and his colleagues aimed to turn the child care concept on its head.
They designed some of their original experiments around Nao, a SoftBank Robotics humanoid model
that is just 25 inches high. When they presented the robot in a classroom of preschoolers, they found that when Nao was programmed to answer all the questions correctly, the children interacted less with their new friend than when it was programmed to make mistakes.
Not only did the robot inspire care-taking in the preschool children, it increased their spontaneous learning: the unplanned and unstructured eureka moments that can widen a child's worldview. For example, children enjoyed teaching the robot so much that they would repeat the teaching games at home, even though there was no robot there, their parents reported.
Since these early experiments, Tanaka has supervised the development of a commercial educational robot known as Pepper for SoftBank Robotics.
A different experience
In general, robots provide a different educational experience than previously experienced, said Tanaka, who has been working in this part of the robotics field since the early 2000s.
One advantage of educational robots is that they have no set timetable. "Children can play with the robot at any time: at midnight or whenever he or she wants to play with the robot," he said. "That's difficult to do with a human or adult teacher."
Another benefit is that robots are entertaining while holding a child's interest for sustained periods, studies have found, and this provides motivation to learn
, he added.
On top of that, a well-designed robot will not make a child feel "pressured
," Tanaka said, whereas parents and teachers sometimes do. "We can design a robot as a kind of weak existence." Reassured by the robot's unimposing presence, a child will want to play and be able to learn easily instead of feeling the kind of pressure that locks a student's mind
The subtleties of demeanor and behavior are inherent in designing "social robots," the broader group of robots of which Tanaka's care-receiving robots are a part.
Joseph Michaelis, a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that social robots "interact with humans using natural social cues like gestures, tone of voice, or head and eye movements to convey meaning."
"Since humans are so strongly wired to interpret what they encounter in a social way, even simple actions, such as when a robot makes a small movement after a child presses its button, can be perceived as social," he said.