The Chinese kindergartners giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.
Just less than 60cm high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.
Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its built-in cameras doubling as both navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.
In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to older people, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko’s creators hope, join the ranks of educators.
At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot — part storytelling and part problem-solving.
Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.
“Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,” said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology (智童時刻科技) as a trainer.
“When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,” she added.
Keeko robots have been introduced into more than 600 kindergartens across the country, with its makers hoping to expand into greater China and Southeast Asia.
Beijing has invested money and personnel in developing artificial intelligence as part of its “Made in China 2025” plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with about 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.
The service robot market — which includes devices ranging from specialized medical equipment to automated vacuum cleaners — was last year worth an estimated US$1.32 billion.
It is expected to grow to US$4.9 billion by 2022, market research firm Research In China said.
Beijing last month hosted the World Robot Conference, featuring machines that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and entertain audiences with their musical skills.
Last year, a group of monks in Beijing created a 60cm-tall robot monk that dispensed mantras and advice to attaining nirvana.
The iPal — a companion of sorts for children — is the latest humanoid robot to be marketed for family use, following in the footsteps of the diminutive, wisecracking Pepper companion released by Japan’s Softbank Corp in 2015.
However, Xie Yi, principal of the kindergarten where Keeko has been put on trial, believes that it would be a long while before robots can completely replace humans in the classroom.
“To teach you must be able to interact, have a human touch, eye contact and facial expressions. These are the things that make an education,” Xie said. “It’s not just the language or the content, it’s everything.”
However, the Keeko robots, which cost about 10,000 yuan (US$1,464), or about the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher, might have some advantages over a flesh-and-blood educator, she said.
“The best thing about robots? They’re more stable [than humans],” she said with a laugh.
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