Mechanical Learning

The Belgian paper La Dernière Heure just featured on-line a great article about an eye-catching educational development in South Korea: My teacher . . . is a robot. Yes, eleven robots are already in place in South Korean elementary schools, and that country’s government apparently intends to have all such public schools equipped with them by 2013.

They look human, of course (the one in the picture at the top of the article looks female; maybe they all do), but in human terms they are relatively small-sized (can’t intimidate the little ones) and dressed in bright colors. And their function does actually involve teaching, mainly that of languages where they perform interactive exercises like vocabulary drills.

As you would hope (or maybe as you would fear), they are programmed to be able to understand human emotions as well as language, and to respond appropriately. Or at least to those situations which their programmers were able to predict: journalist Kahine Benyacoub reports that they still occasionally are faced with some language, emotion, or general situation that just does not compute, in which case they boguer, meaning they act like their software has hit a bug. (Does someone from the principal’s office have to come in to reset them?)

And then there’s this quote that Benyacoub pulls out, from Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science: “The computer scientists’ intentions are not to replace flesh-and-blood teachers, but to aid them with the development and instruction of the child.” Sure they are: as is indicated in the piece’s last paragraphy, however, battle-lines are already being drawn with the teachers’ unions over whether this new phenomenon is really such a good thing for all humans involved.

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