Help: My Teacher Is a Robot. Really

A robot substitute "teaches" in a Tokyo elementary school.

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Smiling. Scolding. Calling roll. If these are the primary job responsibilities for teaching a class of Japanese preteen students, then Hiroshi Kobayashi, Tokyo University of Science professor and creator of the robot named Saya, might really be on to something.

Saya, a female-looking robot complete with shoulder-length black hair, large eyes, thin eyelashes, and a youthful face, was originally designed to be used as a receptionist, as Japanese companies search for a solution to a growing labor shortage as the nation's population ages. But news reports came out last month when Saya was tested in a Tokyo classroom of fifth and sixth graders as a substitute teacher. It (she?) drew laughter from the students with its mechanical mannerisms and declarations of basic pre-programmed phrases such as "Thank you!" It is being called the world's "first robot teacher."

"Robots that look human tend to be a big hit with young children and the elderly," Kobayashi told the Associated Press.

But a hit in what sense? Whether or not the machine gets a laugh out of students seems irrelevant to (and perhaps even at odds with) effective teaching and learning. But let's not get ahead of ourselves—very little actual teaching is likely to be happening here with this android teacher, anyway.

The robot can express six basic emotions: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, and sadness. And it can call roll and shout orders such as "Be quiet." But that's about it. (So you can forget about asking this android for a bathroom pass.)

"The robot has no intelligence. It has no ability to learn. It has no identity," Kobayashi told the Associated Press.

Then why spend the time and resources to put it in a classroom? What does it say about the teaching profession—especially at a time when robotic standardized and high-stakes tests are drawing increased use and increased criticism—to even entertain the possibility of outsourcing teaching to cold, lifeless machines?

Don Knezek, CEO of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education, says that some kinds of artificial intelligence applications, if designed from an educational standpoint, could create learning opportunities for students, especially those with special needs. But he expresses strong skepticism over the benefits of a robot like Saya.

"To some extent, if you put the right resources into it, you might be able to create a robot that addresses a finite set of needs, which may work for some learners," says Knezek. "But for it really to work, it must have true artificial intelligence and variegated teaching strategies. It must observe student performance in real time and assess whether kids are learning or not. For that, you really need a human teacher."

Noel Sharkey, a robotics expert and professor at the University of Sheffield in England, believes robots can help inspire interest in science but says they can't replace humans. "Leading scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, almost without exception, talk about that one teacher who inspired them," he told the Associated Press. "A robot cannot be that kind of inspirational role model."

But other technologies could be of value in the classroom. Knezek says distance learning with a hologram might be a more realistic possibility for schools. That certainly would bring a new light to education standards.