View from here - Is the future artificial?

12th 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 robotics forum in Seoul, it may be only 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, in the South Gyeongsang province.

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."

Teachers from English-speaking countries get very short shrift here, partly because they have long 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. So schools here may be keener than most to find a mechanical replacement for English tutors.

Over 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 as 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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