Pondering a tablet screen displaying a town scene, a pre-K student tilts her head to the side and taps her lip thoughtfully. “ What are we trying to find?” asks
the plush, red and blue robot called Tega that’s
perched on the desk beside the girl. The bot
resembles a teddy bear–sized Furby.
“We are trying to find lavender-colored stuff,”
the girl explains. Lavender is a new vocabulary
word. “OK!” Tega chirps.
The girl uses her forefinger to pan around the
scene. She eventually selects an image of a girl —
not wearing purple. The game puts a red mark
through her choice: wrong.
The girl slumps down in her chair, head dropped
to her chest as Tega says, “I’m sure you will do bet-
ter next time. I believe in you.”
The robot, which MIT researchers are testing
with students in a Boston-area public school, tilts
toward the girl, who leans in close so that her
cheek is right next to Tega’s.
Now it’s the robot’s turn. “Time to
perform!” it says. The scene on-screen
shifts, as though the bot is telepathically control-
ling the tablet. “Hmm …”
Tega looks up at its partner, as though seeking
confirmation that it’s doing this right, and the girl
cups the bot’s cheeks encouragingly. The robot
looks back at the screen. The girl rests her hand in
the robot’s soft fur and murmurs, “I believe in you.”
This kind of tight connection is typical of child-
robot interactions, says MIT social robotics and
human-robot interaction researcher Cynthia
Breazeal. Her team is investigating how this turn-
taking robot can help students learn. Kids have
a “special kind of affinity” with robots, she says.
Although adults might quickly become disen-
chanted with machines that aren’t very perceptive
or don’t speak more than scripted sentences, chil-
dren are liable to chat with, listen to and otherwise
treat even basic robots as sentient, social beings,
says Tony Belpaeme, a social roboticist at Ghent
University in Belgium. Researchers like Breazeal
and Belpaeme are trying to leverage that con-
nection to create robots that engage with kids as
tutors and peer learners.
These robots aren’t meant to replace human
teachers, says Paul Vogt, a social
robotics and language devel-
opment researcher at
Tilburg University in the
They’re cute, but will
robots actually help kids?
By Maria Temming
testing a motley crew
of robots to serve as
tutors and learning
companions for chil-
dren in classrooms or
at home. E . O T