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

RUBI, like most other education-based robots currently in production, can assist human teachers with mundane tasks like teaching vocabulary word memorization or other rote exercises.

The bandana-wearing RUBI interacts with preschoolers at UCSD’s Early Childhood Education Center and teaches them basic concepts such as colors, numbers, and some vocabulary words.

“I think of robot teachers as ‘exercise machines’ and of teachers as ‘coaches,'” said Movellan. “A good coach provides you with the motivation and the vision for why you are exercising. A good exercise machine takes care of the low-level details so you achieve your fitness goals.”

RUBI also has smile-detection technology, made possible with a Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox (CERT), which allows the robot to giggle and encourage a child to continue with the lesson when it sees the child smiling. This smile-recognition technology led to a smile-learning algorithm, now used in Sony’s Shutter Smile Technology, found in a line of the company’s digital camera products.

Movellan says this research is part of MP Lab’s “early inreach” philosophy—inreach as opposed to outreach, meaning that instead of waiting for the basic science to be developed in laboratory environments, MP Lab embeds scientists, engineers, and robots in classrooms very early on in the development process.

“We strive for the ecology of the classrooms to influence the scientific questions we ask. This is in contrast with the more traditional ‘outreach’ approach that emphasizes developing basic science in controlled laboratory conditions and then outreach to the classroom environment and telling teachers what they should do to improve education,” he said.

So far, Movellan said, the most challenging aspect to RUBI’s effectiveness in the classroom is her fatality rate.

“The children would shake RUBI’s head, poke her eyes, pull her arms, and bite her hands,” he said. “Some of our versions of RUBI died after two hours of interacting with the children. In the end, a critical part of RUBI’s survival was to provide her with an ’emotion engine.'”

According to Movellan, RUBI now can detect when her well-being is at stake and respond appropriately. For example, when she feels threatened, she cries, and this gives the children a clear message as to what is appropriate and what is not. When she is surrounded by children who are playing with her, she is happy and giggles.

RUBI is also modeled after typical child behavior, with an interactive program that allows her to take objects offered to her from children, say “thank you,” and then give the objects back.

By the end of RUBI’s first phase, and after conducting two randomized, pre-test/treatment/post-test trials, RUBI was found to have a significant effect on vocabulary learning, both in English and in a foreign language (Finnish).

“Most importantly, we learned about the factors that were more predictive of learning,” Movellan said. “Turns out that the total amount of time a child spent with RUBI was not a very good predictor of learning.”

As with other classroom technology, Movellan explained, what matters most is the duration of the daily interactions. Children who interacted a lot with RUBI during the day, but with short interaction periods, did not learn much. Children who interacted for a lesser amount of time, with each episode being more sustained (about four minutes in all), learned a lot.

MP Lab is now programming RUBI to get four minutes of sustained interaction with each child per day. The researchers also learned that it’s useful to involve more than one child in the interactions. For example, children who typically interact with the robot in short bursts have longer, more sustained interactions when they play with RUBI together.

Beginning in September, MP Lab will receive funding from the National Science Foundation to experiment with the development of a social network of robots (RubiNet) for early childhood education. Movellan hopes RUBI-style educational robots will act as interfaces between toddlers across the nation and across the world, the same way computers act as interfaces between humans and the internet.

Meris Stansbury

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