help keep kids engaged with the robot for the long
term. Over five weeks, iCat played weekly chess
exercises with 16 children in Portugal, ages 8 and
9. The robot, described in 2014 in the International
Journal of Social Robotics, monitored the game
status and students’ facial expressions and offered
advice or emotional support when students looked
unhappy. After the first and final interactions, kids
filled out questionnaires that rated their feelings
of social presence with the robot — that is, how
much working with iCat felt like interacting with
an intelligent, emotional being — from 1 to 5.
In an earlier study with a similar setup but a
nonempathetic iCat robot, kids generally rated
their sense of social presence between 2 and 4,
and these scores declined between the first and
fifth interactions. The empathetic iCat kept the
kids at a high level of social presence — between
4 and 5 — from the first through the final session.
But robots’ sociability can be a double-edged,
distracting sword, as Belpaeme’s team discovered
when using a sociable Nao robot to teach 7- and
8-year-olds in the United Kingdom a strategy for
identifying prime numbers. Twelve kids worked
with this robot, which used social behaviors, calling the child by name and making eye contact.
Another 11 students worked with an asocial bot.
From a pretest to a posttest, kids who worked with
the asocial bot improved their scores on a 12-point
test an average of 2. 18 points; the social robot group
improved an average of 1.34 points, researchers
reported in Portland, Ore., at HRI 2015.
The socially adept bot may have diverted attention away from the lesson; children spent about
45 percent more time looking at the social robot
than the asocial one.
There are other reasons not to make the robots
too engaging. Huang likens the dilemma to concerns about excessive screen time, which may put
young children at risk for speech delay (SN Online:
5/12/17). “Obviously we have good intentions for
these educational robots,” he says, “but the long-term side effects … are unclear.” Some teachers in
Serholt’s focus groups expressed similar concerns
that kids who spend too much time chatting with
robots may lose some ability to decode human
facial expressions or the youngsters may adopt
more robotic mannerisms.
For Sharkey, “the main concern would be that
[kids] come to prefer interacting with the robot.”
A robot that’s always encouraging and never dis-
agrees would probably be easier company than
other kids. A child who spends more time hanging
not develop the social skills necessary to navigate
interpersonal conflict, Sharkey says.
Bridges left to cross
So far, investigations of student-robot interactions
have typically lasted a couple of weeks or months
at most. “What we would want to get up to is a full
academic year,” Breazeal says. Roboticists also
need to test their technology with children from
more diverse backgrounds. Belpaeme and col-
leagues recently ran an experiment with tutoring
robots that helped about 200 children learn a sec-
ond language. Compared with most educational
robot studies, 200 students is a staggering num-
ber, says Huang, but “in the real world, this is like
Amid questions about how they should or
shouldn’t behave, today’s robots are still pretty
limited in what they can do. Educational robots
are typically designed to work on very specific
tasks. The robots still have trouble understand-
ing the high-pitched and grammatically spotty
speech of little kids and don’t have the dexterity
to participate in many physical learning activities
such as science lab experiments.
“We are still a long way” from educational
robots that can interact with students like real
people, says Ana Paiva, an artificial intelligence
researcher at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.
Still, it’s difficult to watch a kid doting on a fluffy
Tega or making small talk with a seemingly interested Nao and not imagine a future where robots
might join teachers and students in class photos. s
s T. Belpaeme et al. “Social robots for education:
A review.” Science Robotics. August 15, 2018.
s A. Sharkey. “Should we welcome robot
teachers?” Ethics and Information Technology.
Robots are good at:
games like chess or
Snakes and Ladders
Teaching basic math
skills or foreign
responses to books read
Robots struggle with:
Adapting their behavior
and lesson plans to
Dexterity for physical
activities, such as
science lab experiments
Being engaging without
distracting from the
attention over the
People tend to think
that educational robots
are ready to replace
teachers, says learning
Michaelis. Not close.
Even if robots are good
at helping kids learn specific skills through highly
structured exercises, the
machines still need more
work to handle many
Students who played chess with an iCat robot designed to
express empathy reported feeling as if they were having a
real social interaction.