A new research program is underway in Japan which will introduce fifth graders to a 1.2 meter tall communication robot called Robovie over a period of 14 months. Researchers at the International Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute (ATR) say Robovie has the conversational skills of a five-year-old, which they hope to improve through daily interactions with the children at Higashihikari elementary school.
Japanese researchers have long held the belief that robots will become part of daily life, but before they can become stand up citizens they'll need an education on human manners and mannerisms. To that end, cute communication robots like Robovie have been in development for years. ATR has already made several revisions to Robovie's appearance and software, and used it in dozens of research projects focusing on human-robot interaction (HRI).
Over the years these robots have helped the elderly shop for groceries and perform as travel guides for tourists via teleoperation. However, its new role as classmate will be its first long-term project, putting to the test how humans co-exist with robots.
Unlike most new kids in class, Robovie has a head start in making friends: it was preloaded with facial photos and voice prints from 119 students and teachers to help it recognize them. Additionally, the researchers have added fifth-grade science textbooks to its database. On its first day, a teacher asked it what a "wound up copper wire" is, to which it answered: "A copper coil. It's part of the motors that move my body." This prompted one student to conclude: "It's smarter than me!"
This is not the first project to pair kids with robots – in 2005 UCSD's Machine Perception Lab introduced toddlers to Sony's pint-sized QRIO humanoid as part of the RUBI Project. In South Korea, a government initiative called R-Learning teaches kids English through a disembodied robot head, and teachers can select from a small handful of edutainment robots to round out lessons. In Japan, NEC's communication robot PaPeRo (which has been in development since 1997) has been introduced to classrooms for a limited time. Kids are also learning about robots through the LEGO Robotics program, which is popular around the world.
The technology inside the Robovie was briefly commercialized by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as a bright yellow US$15,000 household robot called Wakamaru. Unfortunately the venture was a disaster, with customers returning it in droves once they discovered it wasn't very useful or became boring after a few months. The same thing happened with the Sony QRIO – its developers found that their families grew tired of it after only a month – which is probably why Sony canned their Entertainment Robotics division in 2006. As the sophistication of HRI research projects increase however, we can expect to see quite a different reaction to robots in society.