Unbeknownst to parents, all first-grade classes in a suburban Los Angeles elementary school were successfully taught by teacher robots during the 2015-2016 school year.

Only one parent was in on the secret. John Miller*, whose family moved to the area from Silicon Valley and whose son Jack enrolled as a new first-grade student last school year, first approached the district superintendent three years ago with a radical idea.

“We’ve been working on some super cool artificial intelligence (AI), and in lab tests, the AI robots demonstrated instructional capability,” Miller said. “I wanted to see if they could teach real students, because we’ve seen robots help children with social-emotional learning.”

Using life-like faces from Hollywood special effects and makeup artists (think Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire), along with voice modifiers to avoid a robotic monotone, production on the teacher robots began.

During one-on-one and small group instruction, the teacher robots emitted electromagnetic waves that stimulated the frontal lobe in students’ brains. The frontal lobe controls problem solving, self-monitoring, organization, and attention/concentration.

Student teachers present in each classroom helped to grade homework and assisted with classroom management as the artificial intelligence pilot rolled out.

Only one malfunction was reported during the pilot, involving a teacher robot that jumped up and down continuously while teaching students about the life cycle of monarch butterflies. The malfunction was due to a recalled processor that was mistakenly used. The error has been documented and corrected, and the existing batch of remaining recalled processors was destroyed, Miller said.

“The students were so engaged in watching the butterflies that they didn’t seem to notice, despite a few giggles here and there,” said the student teacher. “And they all passed their post-unit assessments.”

*Names have been changed to protect school and student privacy as the program grows

(Next page: Plans to bring the pilot to scale)


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