Institute for Personal Robots in Education Blog

Life-Like Robots

There is an interesting short article on MSN, “Robot Boy is here!” (click for link to article) It caught my attention because of its title – a robot? And a boy? In one? There’s something that tends to intrigue us humans to issues that are human, or at least life-like.

The article describes a Japanese company that’s recently developed a ‘robot boy’, named CB2. It has various child-like features, including the ability to make human facial expression, to crawl, speak, see (using eye cameras), and even hear and feel (through many sensors in the body, simulating human muscles and nerves). I won’t go into it much here, but the article also interestingly mentions the use of such a robot in learning more about humans and child development and, rather oppositely, the need to learn more about how humans ‘work’ before we can implement good human simulations for robots.

The article is interesting from the perspective of one involved in robotics in education. In thinking about appropriate robots for use as a tool for learning about computer science (one of my research focuses this summer) – by ‘appropriate’ I mean robots that students can easily use, take an interest in, and hopefully become motivated to learn about computer science from – I’ve noticed that people are drawn to things like the robot-boy. People are drawn to things that somehow appear alive, even if they’re not actually.

In deciding what type of robot to use, the superficial – the appearance – is a big deal. We’re leaning away from robots that show their ‘insides’, all the robotic machinery that makes them work; the main idea is not to teach students how robots work, but how computer programming of the robots should work. But we come to a number of other similar types of considerations. Do we want some suave ‘bot with a few wheels and some nifty, bright-colored features (like cameras, infra-red light sensors, etc.)? Or, do we want robots that seem to have the touch of life on their ‘faces’ – think, for example, of two tiny, darting robot eyes and a great protruding bump of a nose? Or maybe we just want a combination of the two, cost permitting.

Yet, I think there are a few consequences of using such a robot that we should consider. For instance, robots that look life-like might then lose their ‘robot’ quality. Do we want the robots the students use to be self-evidently robotic, or do we want to hide their robotic self? Or, perhaps does it not matter whether the students instinctively think of the robot as alive or as machinery (and logically, they’ll still know it’s a robot)? Also, will (as Deepak Kumar said, and hopefully I’m repeating him faithfully) robots that look like humans be taken less seriously than a stolid, hardy robot without the foolish grin? Will having life-like robots interest outsiders in the course, and do we want more of such interest? In any case, we should start thinking about the possible impacts of our decision of a robot on students– how to best teach students and motivate and interest them in computer science.

Work well! Not look good!

Thu, 2007-08-09 19:46
Ajeet (not verified)

I agree with the importance of the question: "Will robots that look like humans be taken less seriously than a stolid, hardy robot without the foolish grin?"

I think the big problem with robots in education (and elsewhere) is our abortive attempt to make them human-like.

When we can figure that out, we can move to another level.

>>When we can figure that

Mon, 2007-12-17 18:18
ClimiNax (not verified)

>>When we can figure that out, we can move to another level.
This level is still soo far. Human beings are too anthropocentric to see something else and to "get out from the box".

p.s. They need to to something with the face of this robochild. Poor creature...

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