Normally I’m all for technological advancement, but I just read an article about a robotic teacher that has made her primary-school classroom debut in Japan and it has me seriously questioning what the heck researchers are thinking. Though I have no children of my own, I’ve raised six kids and can promise researchers that there’s no way a computer is going to be able to respond to children’s human needs, let alone answer questions that only a contemplative six-year-old can dream up. The article gives props to the robot’s ‘lifelike facial movements’, and goes on to say that such robots are also being designed to be companions to people with Alzheimer’s. I’ve spent most of my life working with the disabled and feel that abandoning them to robotic companions who have human facial movements but no human warmth is a bad idea. As an sf writer, what do you think?
You don’t provide a link for the article you mention, so it’s difficult to respond to this specifically and with particulars.
Broadly speaking, then: as a human being, I think the notion of robotic ‘companions’, defining companion as ‘a person employed to accompany, assist, or live with another in the capacity of a helpful friend’, is so wrong-headed it’s difficult to believe they’re serious. Helpful friends, whether of the human or faithful animal kind work as friends by sharing emotion. You complain about your boss and the friend says, “That bastard! Have another drink.” You’re feeling tense, you throw a frisbee for your dog and his joy in eeling up into the air to catch that bit of yellow plastic lightens your gloom.
As an sf writer, I think a robot ‘companion’ for people with Alzheimer’s might work, but only if we understand companion to be a euphemism for minder. And I think it would be inhumane. But it beats literally tying the person with Altzheimer’s to the bed. Which happens.
As for teachers, the notion is mind-bogglingly stupid. People learn from people. Learning is a multi-faceted thing, multi-layered. It involves emotion, socialisation, behaviour patterning, memory (which in turns is influenced by all of the above) and so on. A clever piece of plastic, even if brilliantly designed, is just plastic. It is teaching only set things. It can’t think/act/feel out of the box–which, as anyone who knows children understands, is what kids do; it’s what they require in a teacher.
13 thoughts on “robot teachers”
Sometimes scientist need to be reminded of the things that matter. :-(
I’m guessing this is what she’s talking about:
< HREF="http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,508184,00.html" REL="nofollow">Robot Teacher Makes Debut at Japanese School<>
Robot teachers. What will those nutty Japanese scientists think up next??
Gah! As a science teacher, I’m completely horrified that someone thought this up.
They have tried robot teachers and robot actors (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7749932.stm) in Japan now; it’s fascinating that they’re trying robots in some of the professions that require empathy and expression abilities — of course, didn’t it all start with robot dogs? It’s both scary and infinitely interesting how we invest things with personality: here’s a link to a story about tweenbots, not even robots, but cardboard robot looking things that were lost (as an experiment and with instructions) and needed help: http://tweenbots.com/…and no, I am not actually obsessed with robots, they just seem to be news magnets right now (and shiny).
Of course I agree that a machine could never replace a real person with actual feelings — and certainly not to teach children.
But as a person who has a relative in a nursing home having 50% of the say-so in what happens to her, I have to say that I think it would be more humane than strapping her into her wheel chair/and or bed. When the alternative is heavy sedation or giving up my life to go sit by her side in the nursing home, I chose the strap. But I haven’t fully decided about the sedation being better/worse. Her hip is broken beyond repair and because of her dementia she forgets she can’t walk. Keeps getting up and falling and hurting herself.
We do pay someone to sit with her in the nursing home (they want to sedate her), but around the clock care isn’t really feasible on top of the nursing home fees. I find nursing homes in general to be rather inhumane.
But I have to think that a robot would actually be more expensive than a human.
Did you see that < HREF="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdK2y3lphmE" REL="nofollow">robot exoskeleton<> though? I found it on one of the links at the Fox article. It looks similar to that one they are making in Japan. Only in the US, they are using it for < HREF="http://www.lockheedmartin.com/products/hulc/index.html" REL="nofollow">military applications first<>. Quelle surprise.
Having studied a little Artificial Intelligence in the early 80s I remember the issue of the greying population hitting Japan before most other western countries and that Japan had already started experimenting on the idea of intelligent robots because they predicted that soon there would be more people over retirement age than in the working population and with people living longer there would definitely be a problem. The very first conversation between a human and a computer that was supposed to simulate an intelligent response was a program called Eliza – named after Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion. As far as I understand, very quickly it was clear that building a human style brain was waaaay beyond the capabilities of a machine but that SIMULATING an intelligent conversation was actually achievable within limited parameters. Actually ELIZA was NOT an intelligent program – but programs to follow did in fact use artificial intelligence and for example, experiments have shown that in some cases routine medical conversations with patients show that SOME people open up and talk more freely to a machine than to an actual doctor and can be a useful tool to aid in later diagnosis by a real in the flesh human doctor. At the bottom line computers/robots, washing machines are all TOOLS to make life for HUMANS easier. We might be very glad that it is intelligent bots that crawl up the inside of nuclear reactors to check for cracks rather than sending some unfortunate and short lived human to do the job … but when it comes to caring for our loved ones – both young and old – we are really losing the plot. While it might be useful to have a classroom computer in the shape of a person to interact with without the need for a keyboard as an AID to the HUMAN teacher who is the one in real control – it is a different kettle of fish than actually REPLACING said human teacher. As computerisation and electronics becomes ever more sophisticated many changes will take place – for example I read recently that Twittering has been recently achieved without typing but by the power of thought alone and a few well placed electrodes. Ditto prosthetic arms and legs. But I think that with new technology comes new social responsibility and we will need to pass laws to protect humans from their own inventions. There may have to be laws that state, for example, that for N number of old people being cared for in a home there needs to be at least x number of HUMAN carers for every y number of bots. And in schools, social conditioning may have to be a very important class in itself where social interaction, eye contact, human interaction are taught and where human teachers are MANDATORY along with the robotic tools. Unfortunately, it also comes down to cost – if a machine can do something for a hundredth of the cost, then someone will soon start using the machine instead of the human to do the job. What we shall also see more of is the use of robotic extension to the human body – like exoskeletons to aid in walking for long distances – already prototyped by the armed forces – giving extra strength and endurance – and silicon brain implants to either directly link up to a computer or to aid in restoration of eyesight, and cochlear implants for the deaf. It’s not all bad as long as we don’t lose the focus – at the bottom line a kind word, a purr, a hug from LIVING creatures has already proven to be ESSENTIAL for our existence. Beware the baby chimp who was deprived of any hugs from any living thing but was fed, watered and kept at optimum temperature =- and it just died. Let’s use intelligent TOOLS intelligently FOR humans and BY humans and not instead of them.
Have you read “The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” by Neal Stephenson? I read it when I was in middle school and I don’t remember it all that well, but part of it stuck in my mind…Throughout the book, Nell, a child, is educated by an elaborate computer program. One of the central developments of the book is the connection that grows between Nell and the actor who anonymously reads the computer’s voice.
steadycat, I think you (and Jo) may be presuming too much about the scientists’ motivations. It isn’t clear in DianneorDi’s link, but the Saya android was “teaching” only briefly, maybe as an experiment in computer-human interaction or, much more likely, as a publicity stunt to get more funding. Newspapers run with the speculative side of things because it sells copies, but Saya’s program is more directed toward receptionist type work, and I suspect that the scientists themselves are more interested in developing the science for the eventual betterment of humankind than in making small children learn from an android that, thus far, mostly just makes them laugh.
The thought of robots teaching children is chilling. I literally got the chills. When I get over them, maybe I’ll be able to respond reasonably.
Yes. Chilling. We all shudder at this new notion. We resist change and feel impotent at doing anything to prevent it. So we call up our emotions to fight back or flee.
I distilled a few reactions from this post and the comments below it: what the heck… so wrong-headed it’s difficult to believe… inhumane… mind-bogglingly stupid… nutty… Gah!… completely horrified… scary and infinitely interesting… certainly
not… will need to pass laws…
Quite acceptable and understandable reactions in our current social milieu.
But how many similar reactions have we observed in our past history when fundamental leaps in progress are made, particularly from people thinking “outside the box”? I’m old enough to recall (for example) the reception that in-vitro fertilization received when it was first thought of, and the suggestion that it may be possible. Pretty similar to the above. Seems like today there is a bit more tolerance to this notion. Countless miserable, infertile couples and frustrated singles whose lives were transformed by having this cold, detached, emotionless procedure performed.
My argument is that technology moves on. At present, it’s more relentless than ever… with all the good/bad ideas, wonders/pitfalls and embracings/cautions associated with it.
Will the idea of un-chaperoned robot teachers be tossed in the trash quick as a wink? Or become the next fundamental paradigm change for what we consider to be human? I don’t know. My reaction is one of interest and excitement, in the sense that I just can’t wait to see what happens next.
And I’m certainly going to inform myself some more on current research regarding the mapping of emotional responses in the brain, current advances in neural network learning, and futurist’s speculations of what a “runaway A.I” might look like.
Don’t forget that today’s roboticists are still pioneers, like the creators of atomatons in the 16th century or earlier. I believe they will be looked back warmly by our future generations. And yes, it is their
warm, emotional, human selves that are creating our rudimentary robot teachers with all of their quirky ideas, trials, errors and successes.
Thank you Keith for that thoughtful thought provoking response. I still get the chills, which I think come from some atavistic reaction of life to non-life. If a human can make it , does that make it human? I don’t know.
Your much more succinct question really can open up a number of dialogs along philosophical, social and ethical lines. This can range from the significance of “non-thinking” robots that evoke emotional responses in humans (helping lonely people who can’t have pets, therapy for autistic children)… to a future A.I. system (humanoid in form or not) that surpasses human intelligence and raises issues of mind, consciousness, spirituality etc. Definitely fodder for a few more blogs :)
Comments are closed.