View from here - Is the future artificial?

5th March 2010 at 00:00
In eight years' time, robots will be running classrooms, a conference in South Korea has heard. Michael Fitzpatrick reports

How long will it be until English teachers start being replaced by robots? According to experts who attended a recent robotics forum in South Korean capital Seoul, it could be as little as five years away.

Among the 150 specialists who attended the event was Kim Shin-hwan, an economist from the Hyundai Research Institute. In comments reported in The Korea Times, he said: "By around 2015, robots should be able to help teachers in English classes. By 2018, they should be able to teach on their own while communicating with students."

Robots are already being used as assistants in a pilot project at a pair of elementary schools in Masan, South Gyeongsang.

Mr Shin-hwan suggested that English-speaking robots would initially be controlled remotely by teachers in America and England.

"At first, the English-speaking teachers will be used in a similar fashion to e-learning, or study via the internet, because the robots would be controlled by humans across the Pacific," he said.

"However, they will evolve into stand-alone teachers, which do not need human guidance."

Presumably, none of the experts were concerned by the other ramifications of introducing artificially intelligent robots to schools - suggesting they have not seen Blade Runner or The Terminator, in which androids go on killing sprees.

But then schools in South Korea may be more willing than those in other countries to take that risk.

Teachers from English-speaking countries get very short shrift here, partly because they have been scapegoated by the press as drug-crazed, deflowerers of South Korean youth. They are only tolerated because of the high economic and social priority given to mastering English.

South Korean parents and school heads have long cast a mournful eye over the bathing habits and Anglo-Saxon peccadillos of teachers from English-speaking countries. Until now, they have had to battle all the cultural heavy baggage that young English teachers import if their children were to stand any chance of fluency.

So schools here may be keener than most to find a mechanical replacement for English tutors.

In Japan, other attempts have been made to replace school staff with robots.

These include the Wakamuru, a bright yellow plastic and metal robot developed by Mitsubishi which greets visitors at Setagaya Elementary in Tokyo, inviting pupils to register by swiping their identity cards on his arm.

A more human-looking robot, "Saya", has also been developed by Tokyo University, and has been taken on school visits since being reprogrammed last year to act a substitute teacher.

But a problem remains with "uncanny valley syndrome": the tendency of humans to find almost-human robots deeply creepy. That will be among the obstructions that roboticists will need to tackle before schools are overcome by the rise of the machines.

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