Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Letting Robots Teach Schoolkids

For all the talk about whether robots will take our jobs, a new worry is emerging, namely whether we should let robots teach our kids. As the capabilities of smart software and artificial intelligence advance, parents, teachers, teachers’ unions and the children themselves will all have stakes in the outcome.

I, for one, say bring on the robots, or at least let us proceed with the experiments. You can imagine robots in schools serving as pets, peers, teachers, tutors, monitors and therapists, among other functions. They can store and communicate vast troves of knowledge, or provide a virtually inexhaustible source of interactive exchange on any topic that can be programmed into software.

But perhaps more important in the longer run, robots also bring many introverted or disabled or non-conforming children into greater classroom participation. They are less threatening, always available, and they never tire or lose patience.

Human teachers sometimes feel the need to bully or put down their students. That’s a way of maintaining classroom control, but it also harms children and discourages learning. A robot in contrast need not resort to tactics of psychological intimidation.

The pioneer in robot education so far is, not surprisingly, Singapore. The city-state has begun experiments with robotic aides at the kindergarten level, mostly as instructor aides and for reading stories and also teaching social interactions. In the U.K., researchers have developed a robot to help autistic children better learn how to interact with their peers.

I can imagine robots helping non-English-speaking children make the transition to bilingualism. Or how about using robots in Asian classrooms where the teachers themselves do not know enough English to teach the language effectively?

A big debate today is how we can teach ourselves to work with artificial intelligence, so as to prevent eventual widespread technological unemployment. Exposing children to robots early, and having them grow accustomed to human-machine interaction, is one path toward this important goal.

In a recent Financial Times interview, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social psychology at MIT, and a leading expert on cyber interactions, criticized robot education. “The robot can never be in an authentic relationship," she said. "Why should we normalize what is false and in the realm of [a] pretend relationship from the start?” She’s opposed to robot companions more generally, again for their artificiality.

Yet K-12 education itself is a highly artificial creation, from the chalk to the schoolhouses to the standardized achievement tests, not to mention the internet learning and the classroom TV. Thinking back on my own experience, I didn’t especially care if my teachers were “authentic” (in fact, I suspected quite a few were running a kind of personality con), provided they communicated their knowledge and radiated some charisma.  (...)

Keep in mind that robot instructors are going to come through toys and the commercial market in any case, whether schools approve or not. Is it so terrible an idea for some of those innovations to be supervised by, and combined with, the efforts of teachers and the educational establishment?

by Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Nigel Treblin/Getty Images
[ed. See also: Give robots an 'ethical black box' to track and explain decisions]