Photo courtesy of Oddy on Flickr under the Creative Commons license.
The New York Times
is running a fascinating series
on robotics and artificial intelligence this week. Yet there’s something spooky about it too: According to the Times, the education ministry of South Korea is planning to put a robot in every one of its 8,400 kindergarten classrooms by 2013.
Part of the robot invasion is based on the country’s bid to ensure that all of its children learn to speak English. As described in a story by Choe San-Hun
, a penguin-shaped robot named EngKey is encouraging correct pronunciation. “In three to five years, Engkey will mature enough to replace native speakers,” said one of its creators.
Of the robots that might be used with kindergartners, the story describes them this way:
One type of robot, toddler-size with a domed head and boxlike body on wheels, takes attendance, reads fairy tales and sings songs with children. A smaller puppy robot helps leads gymnastics and flashes red eyes if touched too roughly.
In a video accompanying the series, reporter Benedict Carey talks about how robots are not intended to replace humans, but “they might make very good assistant teachers.” They have, as Carey said, “infinite patience or encyclopedic knowledge.” What’s more, they can teach basic skills, like vocabulary words. (The video shows a robot teaching California children “backward” and “forward.")
Does anyone else out there agree that this borders on lunacy? No doubt, as one story points out
, interactive robots could make a big difference for children Asperger’s syndrome or autism who have trouble relating to human expressions and emotions. And there are good cases to be made for using technology with young children
, especially when teachers – human teachers – are guiding them to use the technology to explore new things.
But given the latest research on how much children need and learn from open-ended questions
and social interaction
, the very thought of creating (not to mention funding) a workforce of robots seems like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.
Worse, these ideas could perpetuate the damaging fallacy that teaching young children is all about teaching basic skills. So easy a robot could do it? If only.
If the teaching of English is a priority in South Korea, why not use interactive videos or Skype with instructors here in the U.S. instead? I know some teachers looking for jobs at the moment.