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Pepper the robot takes MPs' questions

Technological first as 'non human' gives evidence at Education Select Committee

Pepper the Robot appeared before MPs

Technological first as 'non human' gives evidence at Education Select Committee

Pepper the Robot made history today as it took its place before MPs to answer questions about preparing children for the fourth industrial revolution.

The robot, “a resident” of Middlesex University, was even given a name label on the desk as it fielded questions from members of the Commons education select committee.

In announcing this unusual move, the committee chairman Robert Halfon said this was “not about someone bringing an electronic toy robot and doing a demonstration, it’s about showing the potential of robotics and artificial intelligence and the impact it has on skills.”

In truth, it felt a bit like both.

The robot is part of an international research project developing the world's first culturally aware robots aimed at assisting with care for older people.

Introducing itself to the committee, Pepper bowed before saying: "Good morning, chair. Thank you for inviting me to give evidence today."

The robot told the committee it had been programmed to work with primary school pupils and those with special needs to boost their numeracy.

Standing as it gave evidence, Pepper's arms and head moved while it gave pre-programmed answers to questions which had been sent in advance.

Somewhat unnervingly, its head also tilted around to whoever was speaking as MPs carefully delivered their questions.

Committee member James Frith MP asked the robot what role humans have in the fourth industrial revolution.

Pepper replied: "Robots will have an important role to play, but we will always need the soft skills that are unique to humans to sense, make and drive value from technology.

"As technologies fuse and are used in ways that were not envisaged before, a new way of thinking is needed by tomorrow's workers.

"We will need people who can spot ideas and think across traditional sector divides to drive value from technological innovation."

"Thank you Pepper," he replied as earnestly as he could.

MP Lucy Powell joked that Pepper "was better than some of the ministers we have had before us".

And Mr Halfon said it was the first time a non-human had given evidence to a select committee but added that "some in the media might debate that".

But not everyone was amused. 

There was criticism on Twitter that the move was a gimmick.

Teacher Carl Hendrick suggested Pepper's appearance before MPs was "like having a consultation on literacy and inviting a Biro."

What was most striking about Pepper's appearance was that as the event wore on MPs were much more impressed and interested in the answers of the two students who accompanied and worked with the robot.

Joana Miranda and Nicholas Fitton impressively fielded questions about technology, preparing pupils for the future and getting more young people interested in STEM subjects.

Ms Miranda told the committee that the robot could not replace teachers but that it was used as a learning tool to help make a subject more interesting. 

And in a way the performance of Pepper today demonstrated that.

Earlier witnesses from the digital sector had said that while artificial intelligence can save teacher workload and even tutor pupils it will never be able to replace a teacher.

Perhaps if this session showed us anything it is that the future is not quite as close as we thought.

 

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