Coming soon to a preschool classroom near you: Robot teachers?

Simon is a socially intelligent robot. Copyright: GA Tech.
Simon is a socially intelligent robot. Copyright: GA Tech.

To help spur interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, many schools have begun to integrate robotics into the curriculum—but are younger students and their teachers ready for a new wave of robotic teaching assistants?

Many researchers and robotics experts agree that robot teachers are no longer the stuff of science fiction—they’re part of a new workforce designed to lend a helping hand to classroom teachers … whose jobs aren’t in jeopardy any time soon, experts say.

Although the technology is still in its developmental stage, and Apple has yet to develop an iRobot, assistant teaching robots already are being piloted in preschool classrooms from Korea to San Diego, Calif. The benefits, say researchers, are that robots not only provide infinite patience but can handle simple tasks that take up teachers’ valuable classroom time.

When asked why it would be desirable to have a robotic assistant in the classroom, instead of another teacher with more skills, Javier Movellan, founder of the UC San Diego Machine Perception (MP) Lab, said robots could be a cost-effective way for schools to get early education teachers the help they deserve.

“Why not both?” asked Movellan. “Think about the operating room of the 19th century and the operating room of the 21st century. The difference is doctors with more skills and much better technology. The technology shaped the skills, and the skills shaped the technology.”


Movellan, whose team at MP Lab developed RUBI, a robot tutor for toddlers, said he only wants early childhood educators of the 21st century to have access to cutting-edge technology tools like other professionals have in their fields.

“I want for them to shape our educational technology so they can have the best tools at their disposal. This is not about reducing the number of teachers. This is about giving the teachers an opportunity to do what they can do best, with the best possible technology,” he said.

RUBI, which stands for Robot Using Bayesian Inference, measures 22 by 24 by 8 inches and is a low-cost sociable robot designed to interact safely with 18- to 25-month-old toddlers.

RUBI in early development. Copyright: Alan Decker
RUBI in early development. Copyright: Alan Decker

The idea began when Movellan took a four-month visit to Japanese roboticist Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s lab in Kyoto, Japan. As part of the visit, Movellan took a robot to a nearby preschool to conduct a series of experiments on how children responded to robots.

Movellan said it was clear that the robot got the children’s attention, and after returning to the U.S., he started working on prototypes in his garage with the help of his four-year-old son. Movellan’s daughter insisted the finished robot was a girl, and so RUBI was born.

After four years, RUBI is now in her fourth and latest version, thanks to funding from a collaboration between the University of California and Sony through a program called UC Discovery, as well as bridge funding from the National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Centers.

RUBI is part of MP Lab’s Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS), or computer systems that can simulate a human teacher by providing direct, customized instruction or feedback to students without the intervention of human beings. ITS assess each learner’s actions and develop a customized “learner model” of the children’s knowledge, skills, and expertise.

Meris Stansbury

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