A new study finds that kids not only love robots, but also that robots benefit kids in the classroom. The implications of this “benefit,” however, might not seem so benign on closer examination.
The study, “Robots @ School,” was implemented by Latitude, an international research consultancy, in association with the LEGO Learning Institute and Project Synthesis, an Australia-based idea consultancy. It asked 350 students, ages 8-12, from Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the UK and U.S. to write and illustrate a short story answering a simple question: What would happen if robots were a part of your everyday life at school and beyond? Thirty-eight percent of the children wanted a robot to learn with, while thirty-eight percent wanted a robot to play with. However, based on student answers, they found that kids blurred the lines between learning and play. For example, the researchers found that kids had their robot make games out of their homework. According to the study researchers, and as summarized in this charming infographic, “Learning becomes fun, play becomes knowledge.” Because of this, the researchers deduced that robots could unleash untapped potential in school-age children frustrated with the learning process.
“On the surface, this study is about robots but, more importantly, it’s about a new paradigm for learning and creativity, which kids – using robots as a focal point – are helping us to uncover,” enthusiastically explained Steve Mushkin, founder and president of Latitude. “Education and learning are moving, at least in many children’s eyes, beyond acts of knowledge transmission toward acts of exploration and creation. As participants in this new model, robots and other intelligent technologies could help unleash the inherent and expansive capabilities of each child in ways that we’ve only begun to conceive.”
One of the big reasons that in-classroom robots promote learning and creativity is because children, according to the study, see technology as fundamentally “human.” In their answers, children describe their robot as reassuring and supportive – a version 2.0 of a parent or friend – offering up endless patience, encouragement and self-direction. Moreover, most kids thought their robots demonstrated qualities that they would like to emulate. In addition, many felt that robots inspired them to be creative outliers. In thousands of households with busy working parents, a robot to help an ADD, autistic, or otherwise stigmatised child stay focused on schoolwork would surely be a welcome addition.
However, in their stories, the kids also imagined robots as better versions of their parents and teachers, willing to take on mundane tasks so that the child could focus on higher-level pursuits. Trying to live up the standards of an endlessly patient, engaging, and encouraging robot could prove dispiriting to any parent outfitted with all-too-human emotional and intellectual intelligence. Especially when trying to get a child to take out the trash, mow the lawn, or clean the dishes.
Moreover, according to the study, 2/3 of kids took for granted that robots would make excellent human companions in spite of their machine intelligence. In the minds of children in the study, robots would not judge or chastise them for unconventional thinking or behavior. Moreover, they would be friendly and safe.
Much like the humorously trusting Butters in South Park, who found his robot friend in “A.W.E.S.O.M.-O 4000” (who turned out to be Cartman, pulling a prank), the study found that in the company of a robot, as opposed to a human, students feel more comfortable and able to project their true self, unleashing waves of learning and creative confidence.
While this study might seem farcical, it highlights some pedagogical ideas that could be implemented without robots. According to the study, teachers could encourage kids to be more self-directed, using tech resources and collaborative assignments to free up time so that they could be present when a student truly needs them. In other words, the Khan Academy model discussed in a previous Crotty dispatch.
The deeper implication of the study, however, is that, psychologically, kids are very receptive to a future where robots are an integral part of their lives. As robust robotics classes, after-school robotics programs, and robotics competitions bring robots into everyday reality, we might want to ask: will robots in the classroom and as “study companions” in the home ultimately make teachers and parents redundant?
Sir David King, England’s chief scientist back in 2006, seemed to hint as much when he said we would have ubiquitous conscious robots by the year 2056. Henrik Christen, Director of the Center of Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes that projection a step further when he argues, “If we make conscious robots, they would want to have rights and they probably should.” If robots have rights, if they can vote, sue, and receive a range of social benefits, including income support, housing, and possibly robo-heathcare, is it that such a far cry from their admission to the American Federation of Teachers?
That reality is closer than you might realize. In Japan and South Korea, robots are already allowed to run entire classes. In South Korea, in particular, hundreds of robots have already been “hired” as teacher aides, classroom playmates, and foreign language instructors.
If you think a robot-run classroom in the U.S. is preposterously far away, imagine that it took only thirty years to go from huge mainframe computers performing mundane tasks to today’s Siri digital assistant. If we extrapolate from Moore’s Law, which ostensibly deals with the doubling of computer chip performance every 18 months, then self-learning, self-improving robot instructors could be commonplace fairly soon. This was confirmed by an exhaustive July 10, 2010 New York Times article on the lightning-fast progress being made on the social, affective, and teaching capabilities of a range of robots around the U.S. The video here shows these robots in action.
Indeed, a Jetsons-like future might arrive sooner than we ever imagined. However, Bill Joy, of Sun Microsystems, in his seminal Wired essay, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” warned against a rosy techno-futurism where conscious, self-replicating robots do the hard work of a robot-dependent humanity. As the Latitude study ominously shows, in a battle between parents, teachers, and intelligent machines, we already know whose side the kids are on.
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