This Week In Bots: How Robots Could Teach Your Kids A Thing Or Two

While some robotics research pursues freaky tech suggesting Terminator-like powers, other scientists are putting robots to good work, helping teachers in the classroom. Yep, just like Walt Whitman, bots contain multitudes!



Bot Vid: Pebble Bots Replicate Patterns

Remember the murderous liquid-metal T-1000 robot from Terminator 2? Well, it can’t be built–yet. But Automaton blog tells us about an MIT effort to make a robotic “smart sand” that will be able to move into different shapes and lock together, even replicating something like a tool on the fly–once it has a pattern to follow. Thus far the team has made macroscopic models, little cubes measuring over a centimeter on a side, so they’re very far from being sand-like. But these models let the scientists work out algorithms to control how the robots will move when eventually they’re manufactured on a micro-machine scale. Could liquid bots be far behind?

Bot Vid: Shoulderbot

Telepresence is in its very early stages, and the robots that do the job now are often like remote-controlled Segways with a screen, camera and loudspeaker atop them–more like a mobile video conferencing unit than conveying the “presence” of the remote operator. That’s likely to change as the tech advances, and a Japanese team from Yamagata University have dreamed up one possible future incarnation for us: The shoulder-mounted robot “friend.” Dubbed MH2, a wearable “miniature humanoid,” the prototype is a little clunky, but still has 20 degrees of freedom to mimic head movements, arm movements and even breathing of the remote operator. Ultimately the idea is that you could take this companion with you, and share the experience with a telepresent person… though the mind boggles at what this’ll feel like.


Bot Vid: Quorum Dances

Robots on production lines are a powerful, money-saving tool, but they’re tightly controlled by central systems to keep their movements precise and synchronized. Robot welding arms clashing on a car production line would cause dangerous disasters, after all. But as robots take on more complex tasks, and arrive in more humanoid forms, then central synchronization becomes less ideal–and particularly in environments where humans are interacting with the machines, and perhaps even accidentally colliding with them you want a troupe of robots to be able to self-coordinate their actions. That’s what another MIT team has been up to, building “quorum sensing” into a robot dance troupe so that they’re aware of the movements of the others, and if they’re interrupted then they can catch up. So the video is silly…but the implications are large.


Bot News

Chicken de-boner. Robots that swarm, can synchronise themselves and form into different shapes may make you a little nervous about a robot uprising, sci-fi style–but by that yardstick an innovation from Georgia Tech will require you to change your pants. The team at the Research Institute there have taught a robot the subtle skills needed to take a knife to a chicken corpse and accurately cut the bones from the tender meat. It has built-in machine vision and a dextrous, force-sensing arm that knows how not to nick the bones. Shivver.

Meat quality checker. More meaty gore: Checking meat quality at abattoirs is a vital part of the work to ensure that only good meat, fit for consumption, ends up going on sale…but it’s a very tricky, expert job. Quality Meat Scotland has been researching using a smart robot arm to do the job, scanning the meat and intelligenty placing a tempersture and pH sensor into the meat–and now thinks it’s ready for the mainstream, applicable to speeding up abbatoir processes. 

High schools and robots. While you may think robots really are the stuff of the future, not the present (if so, you haven’t been reading TWIB closely enough!) there’s now hard data to prove otherwise from a surprising source. Recent stats show that half the top ten high schools featured in the U.S. News & World Reports 2012 rankings have taken part in Dean Kamen’s FIRST robotics competition designed to spur interest in science and tech. 

Bot Futures: Robots In The Classroom

Robot teachers sure sounds like a strange idea–entrusting the education of our future generations to a cold, hard pile of emotionless electronics. They would perhaps be good at ensuring homogeneity of teaching quality…but is that even a good thing? Would robots be able to individually craft educational sessions to cope with the millions of subtle needs, wants, habits and demands of kids?


We’re pretty far from having to worry about grand questions like that, although as the above video shows there have been a couple of simplified attempts at the task. And now, new work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is suggesting that current-generation robots may have a sligthly different role in the classroom, actually assisting human teachers and possibly even aiding with exercise classes and even taking part in teamwork.

The study involved a Wakamaru humanoid robot and a fairly simple experiment: The robot engaged with a class of kids and read them a long story. Somewhat approacing a human telling the tale, the robot gestured with its arms and head to add emphasis, pointing at itself or moving its hands to gesture a mountain shape. The robot was programmed to observe the children and try to re-acquire their attention when it wandered–soemthing we’ve all seen human teachers do when the volume of distracted chatter rises to perceptible, only in this case EEG scans were used to see if children’s minds were engaged or distracted.

Through a series of questionnaires, the team then assessed how well the children could recall the long story they’d just been told. The group exhibiting the most success answered 9 out of 14 questions correctly, but the groups given no human-like attention-demanding cues by the robot averaged just 6.3.

Like many such studies, the simplified experiment seems a long distance away from a real, practical robot teaching solution. But as a case study its results are actually quite stark, and show that a humanoid robot really can add to the teaching experience by monitoring kids’ attention and using non-verbal cues to retrieve them from their distractions. So while a full artificially intelligent robot teacher is pretty far off, there is actually a place for a robot that employs current-day levels of technology in the classroom…all it would take is a relatively low level of research and development. 


Bot Linkage

The Economist has a lead story on its print cover at the moment that’s worth a read. Titled “Morals and the Machine” it’s a summary of some of the interesting issues involved in bot ethics–an increasingly important area as robots become part of more people’s lives, and we use them to actually wage war half way around the world. You can read the online version here, and also read about the subject in more depth in several previous editions of “This Week In Bots.”

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)