October 04, 2005

English-Teaching Robots?

According to this news report, South Korea is about to test the use of robots for the teaching of English. The robots are to be placed in apartment complexes, where they will be available to help children with English pronounciation. The robots are said to be able to read aloud English stories and to correct children's pronounciation.

No explanation is offered of why robots will be used. I can see why computer tutoring might be helpful. Using a computer as a playback device is of course old hat. Computerized evaluation of language learner's pronounciation has been used for some time in Japan. Neither of these tasks requires a robot. The organization sponsoring the project is the Korea Advanced Intelligent Robot Association, an outfit supported by the Ministry of Information and Communication, whose newsletter provides further insight. It turns out that the goal of the project is to push robots, with English-teaching just one of a variety of activities of which they are capable. The robots have sensors that allow them to function as security alarms. They also have built-in vacuum cleaners.

What I find rather odd is that the functions that call for robots as opposed to computers are extremely limited. Other than vacuuming, for which much cheaper and smaller devices are available, the only function mentioned that calls for motion is that the robot can be programmed to go into the bedroom and wake people up. The last I knew, alarm clocks did a perfectly fine job of this. Robots have some very important uses. Industrial robots already do a lot of work on assembly lines, and bomb-disposal robots make the job of bomb-disposal units a good deal safer. These robots, however, seem to have little practical use.

This impression is confirmed by plans to introduce postal robots. One model, described as male, is to function as a security guard. The other, described as female,

will take care of customers by showing fun video clips to waiting clients on a built-in monitor.

Leaving aside the gender stereotyping, isn't this more than a bit ridiculous? If long lines at the post office are a problem, maybe they should increase staff or make postal operations more efficient. If I were in a long line at the post office, I doubt that being shown funny video clips would greatly improve the experience. And, after the initial novelty wears off, why will it be more enjoyable to see the video clips on a robot than on a television screen?

The impression I get is that this is the sort of snazzy but not really useful project that critics consider to be characteristic of the MIT Media Lab.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 4, 2005 11:49 AM