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Good morning Teacher Robot!

Wednesday July 22 2009

The HRP-4C humanoid robot

The HRP-4C humanoid robot "Miim" wearing a wedding dress by Japanese designer Yumi Katsura, attends a news conference after the 2009 Yumi Katsura Paris Grand Collection in Osaka, western Japan, July 22, 2009. PHOTO/REUTERS 

By GATONYE GATHURA and OLIVER MATHENGE

The US robot, made in the likeness of the great scientist, Albert Einstein, is poised to take over teaching young children and those learning languages.

Using artificial intelligence, scientists at the University of California, San Diego in the US, have made the first human-like robot that teaches itself and can make realistic facial expressions described as disturbingly lifelike.

But it is Japan which could roll out the first commercial robot teachers to the world with the first human-like prototype already taking roll-calls and giving homework to students at a Tokyo primary school.

Using robot teachers could save governments a lot of money, but cost hundreds of thousand of teachers their livelihoods.

Other than being a threat to the teaching profession, psychologists are warning that it may have negative effects on students.

According to Dr John Katee, human beings learn from models and at a young age, it would be important to have the children experience personal interaction with fellow human beings.

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He notes that learning is more of what comes up rather than following instructions and manuals.

Dr Katee said that most of the learning in human beings is not structured, and therefore, the robots would not be spontaneous in their actions. He says this is because by use of artificial intelligence, robots are already set on what to do.

“A robot is programmed on what to do and, therefore, there would be no interaction with the children especially at ages of school entry,” Dr Katee told the Nation in an interview.

The US robot, which is said to also be able to react to real human expressions such as happiness or sadness, will soon be tested in schools.

Learning process

But Dr Katee argues that such a learning process may lead to lack of emotional maturity in children, leading to a feeling of alienation. The children, he says, after a while may develop feelings that no one really cares for them.

The reality of doing away with human teachers in the classroom was brought closer last week in the July 17 issue of the journal Science by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists, artificial intelligence experts and educationists.

In an essay titled ‘New science of learning’, the group argues that early learning is computational; a finding that has been used by engineers to create machines that can learn and develop social skills.

According to the authors, imitation is a key component in learning even for adults and this skill is best replicated in computational systems.

They argue that since robots are good at imitating people, learning and socialising with them, it means eventually they will teach humans.

In March, Japan became the first country to employ a robot to instruct students at a primary school in Tokyo. Modelled to resemble a beautiful young female, Saya, the robot, is said to be capable of teaching students while expressing a range of emotions, including happiness, surprise, sadness, and — for unruly children — anger.

By April, Saya was already taking roll-call and giving homework. After passing a trial term at the school, Saya will start teaching full-time and it is thought that she will help cut costs.

The cost-cutting aspect for elite private schools in Nairobi and more affluent families who are preferring to take their children to day care centres early in life, could create a ready market for robot teachers.

With global recession, the robot may be preferred to the importation of migrant teachers from Kenya and other poor countries in the West and this in the next few years may accelerate the rate of job losses in the teaching profession in these countries.

The robots are also increasingly being used as companions for the old, an area which has been dominated by migrant workers as well.