A top engineer says robots are starting to enter American kindergartens alongside kids

PepperPepperRobots are entering early education to help teachers cater to student needs.

Tiny humans aren’t the only ones entering a classroom for the first time.

Increasingly, robots are too.

According to Karen Panetta, dean of graduate engineering at Tufts University and editor-in-chief of IEEE WIE Magazine, artificial intelligence software and early-stage humanoid robots are playing a growing role in pre-K and kindergarten in the US.

Over time, Panetta says, people should only expect machines’ presence to increase.

“Look at movie theatres right now,” Panetta told Business Insider. In a handful of locations around the US, Disney has been tracking audience engagement with emotion recognition software — the kind that could someday live inside an artificially-intelligent robot inside a classroom, Panetta said. “That same technology is going to be pivotal for the future of learning.”

According to Panetta, the most ground-breaking technologies in the early education space help students learn basic language skills, rudimentary coding, and give kids with special needs equal opportunities to their peers.

She points to toys like the Code-a-pillar, an animatronic caterpillar made by Fisher Price that gets kids familiar with simple commands to guide the toy’s motion. But she also has observed more advanced AI that can customise lesson plans based on kids’ individual skill sets.

One promising example is Newsela, a literacy platform that helps kids improve their reading skills by automatically adjusting the language found in news articles on a tablet app. Stronger readers may read an original article as it appears in the Washington Post or New York Times, while a weaker reader may get a simplified version crafted by the staff at Newsela. Currently, the company is in 75% of American classrooms.

Eventually, this type of software could live inside built devices that walk and talk.

SoftBank’s Pepper robot, for instance, was developed to live with people who need a companion or aide, such as the elderly or disabled. Pepper comes equipped with emotion-recognition software that analyses voice tones and facial expressions. In the US, the Rubi Project seeks to do the same thing with robots in the classroom.

Overall, US education has been slower to adopt robotics than other countries, especially those in Asia. In 2015, Singapore launched a program called Playmaker, in which preschools across the nation were given four toys meant to boost kids interest in science, technology, education, and maths (STEM).

Busy Bees involves kids pulling labelled cards off a stack, such as the words “Shark” or “Book,” and programming an electronic bumblebee to move across a floor mat to the corresponding image. Another toy in the Singapore program is Kibo, which was developed right next door to Panetta at Tuft’s Department of Child Study and Human Development. Kibo is a four-wheeled device that can scan a series of coded blocks, arranged by the students, and chart its path on the floor based on the order of those blocks.

Panetta still had her doubts that robots could — or should — replace teachers or human interaction altogether as some researchers have explored.

“That same feedback that AI is going to give you about how you’re feeling, well, you need as a human being to be able to absorb that yourself,” Panetta said. “We still want our children to be able to feel compassion and understand that they said something that hurt somebody’s feelings.”

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