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Students, meet your new teacher, Mr. Robot


Computer scientists are developing machines that can teach people simple skills, like household tasks and vocabulary, reports the New York Times. A dark-haired 6-year-old is playing with a new companion. The two hit it off quickly—unusual for the 6-year-old, who has autism—and the boy is imitating his playmate’s every move, now nodding his head, now raising his arms. “Like Simon Says,” says the autistic boy’s mother, seated next to him on the floor. Yet soon he begins to withdraw; in a video of the session, he covers his ears and slumps against the wall. But the companion, a three-foot-tall robot being tested at the University of Southern California, maintains eye contact and performs another move, raising one arm up high. Up goes the boy’s arm—and now he is smiling at the machine. In a handful of laboratories around the world, computer scientists are developing robots like this one: highly programmed machines that can engage people and teach them simple skills. So far, the teaching has been very basic, delivered mostly in experimental settings, and the robots are still works in progress—a hackers’ gallery of moving parts that, like mechanical savants, each do some things well at the expense of others. Yet the most advanced models are fully autonomous, guided by artificial intelligence software like motion tracking and speech recognition, which can make them just engaging enough to rival humans at some teaching tasks. Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism…

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