Science & Hi-Tech

Robot teachers invade Chinese kindergartens

Children watch a Keeko robot (pictured) at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems. When the children get an answer right the robot
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A two-foot (60 cm) tall robot is being used to teach young children in Chinese schools. 

Keeko the robot bears a startling resemblance to Eve from the Pixar film Wall-E and moves around completely independently via inbuilt sensors and cameras. 

It also comes fitted with a small screen to interact with the pupils and is being used by teachers to tell stories and present logic problems to the kindergarten students.

More than 600 kindergartens across the country have been equipped with a Keeko bot and the makers of the round machine hope to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia. 

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Children watch a Keeko robot (pictured) at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems. When the children get an answer right the robot’s face flashes with heart eyes

The armless robot moves on tiny wheels and has inbuilt cameras that double up as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera.  

‘Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,’ said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

‘When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,’ she added.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing one of the task Keeko assists with is part storytelling and part problem-solving.

A ‘prince’ has to find his way through a desert and the children must put together square mats that represent the path taken by the robot.   

Each time they get an answer right the device reacts positively, displaying heart-shaped eyes on the small screen. 

The armless robot (pictured) moves on tiny wheels and has inbuilt cameras that double up as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera

The armless robot (pictured) moves on tiny wheels and has inbuilt cameras that double up as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia

Xie Yi, principal of a kindergarten where Keeko has been put on trial, believes that it will be a long while before robots can completely replace humans in the classroom

Xie Yi, principal of a kindergarten where Keeko has been put on trial, believes that it will be a long while before robots can completely replace humans in the classroom

But Xie Yi, principal of a kindergarten where Keeko has been put on trial, believes that it will be a long while before robots can completely replace humans in the classroom.

‘To teach you must be able to interact, have a human touch, eye contact and facial expressions. These are the things that make an education,’ Xie said.

‘It’s not just the language or the content, it’s everything.’

She said the Keeko robots, which cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500), or about the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher, may have some advantages over a flesh-and-blood educator.

‘The best thing about robots? They’re more stable (than humans),’ she said with a laugh. 

China has invested heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence in recent years with machines developed that can deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly and dispense legal advice. 

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its ‘Made in China 2025’ plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

Keeko the robot bears a startling resemblance to Eve (pictured) from the Pixar film Wall-E and moves around completely independently via inbuilt sensors and cameras

Keeko the robot bears a startling resemblance to Eve (pictured) from the Pixar film Wall-E and moves around completely independently via inbuilt sensors and cameras

Keeko robots cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500), or about the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher. it is the latest in a string  developments from China as the country invests heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence

Keeko robots cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500), or about the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher. it is the latest in a string  developments from China as the country invests heavily in robotics and artificial intelligence

WILL YOUR JOB BE TAKEN BY A ROBOT?

A report in November 2017 suggested that physical jobs in predictable environments, including machine-operators and fast-food workers, are the most likely to be replaced by robots.

Management consultancy firm McKinsey, based in New York, focused on the amount of jobs that would be lost to automation, and what professions were most at risk.

The report said collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines. 

This could displace large amounts of labour – for instance, in mortgages, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing.

Conversely, jobs in unpredictable environments are least are risk.

The report added: ‘Occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child- and eldercare – will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.’

Teachers believe the robot has an appeal for children due to its round head and body. The 'adorable' appearance attracts them and they 'almost immediately take to it'  

Teachers believe the robot has an appeal for children due to its round head and body. The ‘adorable’ appearance attracts them and they ‘almost immediately take to it’  

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country. 

The service robot market, including specialised medical equipment and even automated vacuum cleaners, is estimated to be worth £1.03 billion ($1.32 billion) last year.

It is expected to grow to £3.82 billion ($4.9 billion) by 2022, said market research firm Research In China.

Last week, Beijing hosted the World Robot Conference, featuring machines that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and create music. 

Keeko is the latest in a string of developments out of China that use robotics and artificial intelligence.

Last year, a group of monks in Beijing created another two-foot-high robot that was a robot ‘monk’ and dispensed mantras and advice to people in looking to reach nirvana.

The iPal – a companion of sorts for children – is the latest humanoid robot to be marketed for family use, following in the footsteps of the diminutive, wisecracking ‘Pepper’ companion released by Japan’s SoftBank in 2015.

WHY ARE PEOPLE SO WORRIED ABOUT AI?

It is an issue troubling some of the greatest minds in the world at the moment, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk described AI as our ‘biggest existential threat’ and likened its development as ‘summoning the demon’.

He believes super intelligent machines could use humans as pets.

Professor Stephen Hawking said it is a ‘near certainty’ that a major technological disaster will threaten humanity in the next 1,000 to 10,000 years.

They could steal jobs 

More than 60 percent of people fear that robots will lead to there being fewer jobs in the next ten years, according to a 2016 YouGov survey.

And 27 percent predict that it will decrease the number of jobs ‘a lot’ with previous research suggesting admin and service sector workers will be the hardest hit.

As well as posing a threat to our jobs, other experts believe AI could ‘go rogue’ and become too complex for scientists to understand.

A quarter of the respondents predicted robots will become part of everyday life in just 11 to 20 years, with 18 percent predicting this will happen within the next decade. 

They could ‘go rogue’ 

Computer scientist Professor Michael Wooldridge said AI machines could become so intricate that engineers don’t fully understand how they work.

If experts don’t understand how AI algorithms function, they won’t be able to predict when they fail.

This means driverless cars or intelligent robots could make unpredictable ‘out of character’ decisions during critical moments, which could put people in danger.

For instance, the AI behind a driverless car could choose to swerve into pedestrians or crash into barriers instead of deciding to drive sensibly.

They could wipe out humanity 

Some people believe AI will wipe out humans completely.

‘Eventually, I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this,’ DeepMind’s Shane Legg said in a recent interview.

He singled out artificial intelligence, or AI, as the ‘number one risk for this century’.

Musk warned that AI poses more of a threat to humanity than North Korea.

‘If you’re not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea,’ the 46-year-old wrote on Twitter.

‘Nobody likes being regulated, but everything (cars, planes, food, drugs, etc) that’s a danger to the public is regulated. AI should be too.’

Musk has consistently advocated for governments and private institutions to apply regulations on AI technology.

He has argued that controls are necessary in order protect machines from advancing out of human control


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