A number of robots developed by KIST are currently undergoing trials in South Korean classrooms (see FR-i, ROTI). The robots are being used as automated English teachers in the absence of qualified personnel, with mixed results. Some of the robots, like Sil-bot, have been modified to become telepresence robots for distance-teaching. Yujin Robot’s iRobiQ is also being tested.
The problem becomes evident when you watch the robots and kids interacting (Editor’s note: after posting this story, the video was removed). To begin with, the software’s speech isn’t as natural as a native English speaking voice. And in one purely automated set-up, the speech recognition software has difficulties understanding what the children are saying. A human teacher would be able to understand what is being said, but here the robot interrupts the child mid-sentence and says, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” and prompts the child to repeat the phrase. Notice the look of frustration on the girl’s face? In another video with older students, it’s difficult to gauge whether they will take their work seriously since they are not dealing with an adult (an authority).
This seems to back-up Noel and Amanda Sharkey’s “The crying shame of robot nannies: an ethical appraisal” (.PDF available here), a scathing review of robots as child caregivers that delves into the many issues thereof. Though the article primarily deals with robots as makeshift babysitters, many of these issues will also be prevalent in robots as substitute teachers.
English teachers that received training from institutes guaranteeing placement overseas have been deported in recent years due to lack of university qualifications. Wouldn’t they be preferable to these robots? The trial is still underway, so we’ll have to wait and see if the government deems the robot substitutes worthy of a country-wide program. Watch plenty of videos of the robot substitute teachers at work at the source links below.