March 11, 2009

‘Robot Teacher’ Smiles, Scolds, Delights Students

Honda's new "robot teacher" can scold, smile and call roll, delighting students with her lifelike appearance. 

Unlike some mechanical-looking robots such as Honda Motor Co.'s Asimo, Saya can express six fundamental emotions "” happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness.   These emotions are made possible since Saya's rubber skin is pulled from the back with motors and wiring around the mouth and eyes.

For instance, to appear surprised Saya's mouth will open, with her eyes widening with arched eyebrows.  And during a demonstration of happiness, Saya pulled back on its lips to make a smile, saying simple preprogrammed phrases such as "Thank you," while her lips moved to express cheerfulness.

"Robots that look human tend to be a big hit with young children and the elderly," said Hiroshi Kobayashi, Tokyo University of Science professor and Saya's developer, in an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday.

"Children even start crying when they are scolded."

Saya was originally developed in 2004 as a receptionist.

Earlier this year, she was tested in real-world fifth and sixth grade classrooms in Tokyo. The children had great fun, Kobayashi said, and were delighted to hear their names called out.

However, Saya can still do little more than call out names and bark orders such as "be quiet," and must be remotely-controlled by a human operator watching the interaction through cameras, he said.

And even Honda says Saya is not likely to replace human instructors anytime soon. 

Nevertheless, Japan and other nations are optimistic robotics will provide a solution for their growing labor shortage problem amid aging populations.

But some scientists worry about the idea of using a robot to take care of children and the elderly.

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ronald C. Arkin said further studies on human-robot interaction are needed before we can rely on robots.

"Simply turning our grandparents over to teams of robots abrogates our society's responsibility to each other, and encourages a loss of touch with reality for this already mentally and physically challenged population," he told the AP.

University of Sheffield robotics expert Noel Sharkey said that while robots can never completely replace humans, they can effectively serve as educational aids in generating students' interest in science.

"It would be delusional to think that such robots could replace a human teacher," he told the Associated Press.

"Leading scientists, engineers and mathematicians, almost without exception, talk about that one teacher who inspired them. A robot cannot be that kind of inspirational role model."

Kobayashi says Saya is simply intended to help people, and cautioned against anyone setting their expectations too high.

"The robot has no intelligence. It has no ability to learn. It has no identity," he said.

"It is just a tool."


On the Net: