Seoul—Robots may not be that good at teaching—not yet, anyway—but at least you don’t have to do background checks on them.
Mun Sang Kim, director of the Center for Intelligent Robotics at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, knows where his robotic teachers have been. He and a team of more than 300 researchers are designing them from the ground up—attempting to give them realistic facial features, arms that let them gesture, and sensors so they keep their distance from students.
The unusual project aims to create robots that can teach English to schoolchildren here, and it is a huge undertaking. The research is supported by more than $100-million in grants, mostly from the South Korean government, and it involves more than 300 researchers, said Mr. Kim.
As an engineering achievement, they are a feat. These roughly three-foot-tall robots can roll around, recognize speech, and display facial gestures as they broadcast audio (they’re designed to help with pronunciation, among other things). But the task they’re doing is the hardest part, considering how nuanced and personal teaching is at its best.
These robots are designed to teach in one of two ways: either by leading students through preprogrammed exercises or by having a human operate them remotely using the Internet.
The country has a shortage of native-speaking English teachers, Mr. Kim said, so the robots are meant to be an improvement on local teachers who have little English skill. So rather than bring in teachers, the system will allow schools to outsource the teaching to the Phillippines, where fluent English teachers are prevalent.
“It works just like a call center,” said Mr. Kim.
Mr. Kim stressed that the machines are not meant to replace teachers—though in some cases a robot will become the main teacher in a classroom, while an assistant will be on hand to monitor student behavior and help out.
The first prototype costs about $40,000 each to build, but Mr. Kim hopes to get the costs down to $10,000 each for a new model that is now being manufactured.
Forty robots will go into service for a pilot test in December, teaching at 18 elementary schools for three months to see how well they do.
Other than providing a low-cost option in the long run, the robots are also meant to solve what Mr. Kim called a “moral problem.” The country has seen several cases in recent years of foreign teachers and professors of English abusing children.
“There are some problems and some accidents in hiring native speakers at the schools right now,” said the researcher. “For example, the immigration system in Korea is not good enough to examine whether the foreign visitors are clean or not, or they did some crime,” he added. “That’s the reason why the government thinks about such robot systems—they don’t have any such social problems, they don’t do the drugs.”
Researchers at the lab organized a demonstration of the robots with a few schoolchildren. At times the students were involved, but other times they stared off into space or looked distracted as the robot asked them questions or gave them feedback. So as teachers, these robots still need some training. (Mr. Kim insists that the model coming in December corrects some of the flaws of the prototype.)
To see highlights from the demonstration, see our video report above.