Our Little Metal Friends

Some of the biggest challenges faced within the education sector have been how to motivate the disengaged child, inspire teamwork in the autistic pupil and teach critical thinking in those with ADD and other special educational needs. Alongside these very human traits which are so important in successfully navigating our complex society, the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) also need to be imparted in such a way as to be interesting and accessible to SEN children.

Hanson Robotics based in Hong Kong is the brainchild of David Hanson and is at the forefront of the development of educational companions who are self-learning robots designed to interact, teach and amuse both children and adults alike. From their groundbreaking iTutorGroup robot Sophia who has reincarnated through several versions of herself and has now become a celebrity on the media circuit, Little Sophia has emerged who is described as Sophia’s ‘little sister’ and has been developed as a teaching companion to young children. Little Sophia is 14” tall with the body of a robot and a mobile childlike face. She is designed to appeal to children aged 8 years upwards while interacting with jokes, songs, games and stories which teach STEM, coding and AI. Her facial recognition technology means she will learn about the children and what it means to be human while working alongside them. Hanson says his Sophia creations are just the first steps to ‘humanising the algorithms so they will eventually become sentient beings.’ This is a controversial statement which will excite some and terrify others, but it is not expected that teachers will be entirely replaced by robots in the future. Developers insist that robots are there to complement, not take over the education industry.

Pepper is a tall, high-tech humanoid robot created by Softbank Robotics in Tokyo in 2014 to serve as an instructor for the STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths). It was the first personal robot in the world to read emotions and was designed to keep detailed data on its interactions with students. Originally, one of the early ambitions of Softbank Robotics was to offer new educational approaches involving robots for teachers and autistic children. Robin, a smaller social robot from the Softbank stable teaches languages to children. Researchers discovered that learning while playing allows new vocabulary to embed more effectively as the child is relaxed, chatting with their friendly social robot.

International Robotics Inc. was founded by Robert Doornick to bridge the gap in the SEN field by creating robots who made face to face interaction easier for autistic children. ‘A child’s love of a big toy is overwhelming,’ says Doornick. ‘the child knows the robot is under his control and bonding becomes easier.’ But it is not just autistic children who will benefit from these robots. Seco, a therapeutical robot developed by Doornick’s team, conducts psychiatric interviews with children who have been abused or who have severe behavioural problems, with encouraging results. Once the emotional barriers of these children have been breached by robots, then it will be easier for them to learn from the educational robots designed to interact with their limitless patience and calm neutrality.

Of course there will be inevitable questions surrounding the moral obligations these Robot Developers face, not to mention the potential for distancing children from human interaction and preferring robot company above childhood friends, but it is clear from the current research that children find robots non-threatening and non-judgemental, and where adult humans may fail in breaking down the emotional boundaries of children with SEN or ADD, robots like Little Sophia, Pepper and Seco may be able to unlock the doors that we as human adults have not yet been able to fully access.