Tue, Jul 13, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Students, meet your new teacher, Mr Robot

Across the globe, computer scientists are busy developing android educators of the future

By Benedict Carey and John Markoff  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Thespian, a humanoid robot, communicates with audience members at the Robotic World exhibition held at the Israel National Museum of Science on July 8.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The boy, 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 91cm-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, including household tasks, vocabulary or, as in the case of the boy, playing, elementary imitation and taking turns.

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.

LESSONS FROM RUBI

“Kenka,” says a childlike voice. “Ken-ka.”

Standing on a polka-dot carpet at a preschool on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, a robot named RUBI is teaching Finnish to a 3-year-old boy.

RUBI looks like a desktop computer come to life: its screen-torso, mounted on a pair of shoes, sprouts mechanical arms and a lunchbox-sized head, fitted with video cameras, a microphone and voice capability. RUBI wears a bandanna around its neck and a fixed happy-face smile, below a pair of large, plastic eyes.

It picks up a white sneaker and says kenka, the Finnish word for shoe, before returning it to the floor. “Feel it; I’m a kenka.”

In a video of this exchange, the boy picks up the sneaker, says “kenka, kenka” — and holds up the shoe for the robot to see.

In the San Diego classroom where RUBI has taught Finnish, researchers are finding that the robot enables preschool children to score significantly better on tests, compared with less interactive learning, as from tapes.

Researchers in social robotics — a branch of computer science devoted to enhancing communication between humans and machines — at Honda Labs in Mountain View, California, have found a similar result with their robot, a 91cm-tall character called Asimo, which looks like a miniature astronaut. In one 20-minute session the machine taught grade-school students how to set a table — improving their accuracy by about 25 percent, a recent study found.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

In a lab at the University of Washington, Morphy, a pint-sized robot, catches the eye of an infant girl and turns to look at a toy.

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