The 'dunce robots' of Japan will help children learn

The 25-inch Nao robot was found to increase preschool kids' spontaneous learning.

Story highlights

  • Care-receiving robots require human attention and aid
  • Social robots use natural social cues like gestures, tone of voice or eye movements to convey meaning

(CNN)For many people, the future inspires nightmare visions of a "robopocalypse," a time when humans become subjugated by their own creations: robot overlords that possess superior physical and intellectual prowess.

One Japanese researcher, however, has designed a robot that instills the opposite image of our future, particularly in the minds of the children who use them.
    Fumihide Tanaka's educational robots do not perform the role of an all-knowing teacher. Instead, they are built to help young students study English vocabulary and serve as classroom dunces who commonly make mistakes -- mistakes that a helpful student can correct.
    Nao, a robot from Softbanks Robotics, can be programmed to work as an educational tool for children.
    By teaching a less intelligent robot, children reinforce their own learning and so become stronger students themselves, Tanaka believes, and research supports this.
    "We learn a lot by teaching others," said Tanaka, information and systems associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tsukuba. "I personally did not like the idea of tutor robots. This is the complete opposite of a tutor robot; it's more like the children's friend. Or like a younger brother or sister."

    'Care-giving robots'

    Tanaka's creations fall into the category of "care-receiving robots," he said. As the name suggests, they require human companions to pay attention and show concern. The original concept was proposed in 2009.
    Having developed both entertainment and educational robots as a former research engineer at Sony, Tanaka believed that a care-receiving robot would be ideal as an educational tool.
    In published research, he and a colleague wrote, "Most educational robots for children so far have been designed and developed to play the role of human teachers or caregivers. In fact, some robots have already been named explicitly as 'childcare robots.' "
    But Tanaka and his colleagues aimed to turn the child care concept on its head.
    They designed some of their original experiments around Nao, a SoftBank Robotics humanoid model that is just 25 inches high. When they presented the robot in a classroom of preschoolers, they found that when Nao was programmed to answer all the questions correctly, the children interacted less with their new friend than when it was programmed to make mistakes.