Service robots in education

A national strategy to educate the children

By Philippa Martin-King

In recent years the new category of robot known as the service robot has come into existence. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities for engineers and developers, both in terms of imagination and return on investment. Various Asian economies, already intent on robotic growth, have gone so far as to include the service sector in their strategy plans for national development and government-led initiatives.

Alina and the robot
Alina and the robot

What is a service robot?

The service robot, as opposed to the industrial robot, which is used in a manufacturing context, refers to a category of robots developed to assist human beings to carry out repetitive, dull or even dangerous tasks. ISRA (the International Service Robot Association) defines service robots as "Machines that sense, think, and act to benefit or extend human capabilities and to increase human productivity". Although the connotation of the service robot is relatively new, many predict that, in commercial terms, sales of service robots will quickly overtake those of industrial robots.

Every home will have a robot

Bill Gates published an article in the January 2007 issue of Scientific American in which he predicted that every home would soon have a robot. Contrary to the image portrayed on the cover of the publication, he was thinking along the lines of a smart mobile device that would be able to carry out various tasks around the household.

"[The robotics industry] is a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms" he said. "…[It] is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. Think of the manufacturing robots currently used on automobile assembly lines as the equivalent of yesterday's mainframes. The industry's niche products include robotic arms that perform surgery, surveillance robots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan that dispose of roadside bombs, and domestic robots that vacuum the floor. Electronics companies have made robotic toys that can imitate people or dogs or dinosaurs, and hobbyists are anxious to get their hands on the latest version of the Lego robotics system."

Service robots for cleaning and dismantling…

Indeed, all those categories of robots he described at the time as niche, have since become more commonplace and, in some cases, quite widespread. In 2010 there were approximately 200 companies producing or developing service robots on a global basis for industrial tasks such as the dismantling of nuclear power stations, or domestic tasks such as cleaning floors or mowing the lawn.

… Edutainment and learning

At first, the far-from-cuddly looking creatures that many manufacturers produced for the new edutainment market appeared to be more like a hard plastic toy than anything that has particular use. Many dismissed these service robots as being too trivial to be of any economic or commercial importance. And yet, particularly in Asia, the role of the robot in assisting the young in their learning at nursery schools, or in providing additional information for adults visiting museums and galleries, its use in security applications, medical and household services and so on, is giving direction to a whole new growth of robotic manufacturing.

Endowed with the latest technology

An edutainment robot contains the very latest in electrotechnical wizardry – all of it covered by the IEC and the International Standards produced and maintained by its various TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees): microphone, camera, touch sensors, movement sensors, touch screen, home network connections, stereo speakers. An edutainment robot can recognize external images through its camera and respond to faces or actions. It can distinguish between different voices and, using various LEDs to express emotion, react with eye, mouth and facial movements. It can talk through its speakers, play music, give commands, move when it detects an obstacle, or stop and start.

Strategic government plans

…Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing like the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices become more and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to say exactly what a robot is. Because the new machines will be so specialized and ubiquitous—and look so little like the two-legged automatons of science fiction—we probably will not even call them robots. But as these devices become affordable to consumers, they could have just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years.

Bill Gates,
 Published in Scientific American, January 2007

Sang-rok Oh is Principal Research Scientist in R-learning at the Cognitive Robotics Center of KAIST (Korean Institute of Science and Technology) of which he is also Vice President. He is leading a special government project funded by MEST (the ministry of education, science and technology) and set up in January 2010 to oversee robotics in education. Such is the pace of development of these next generation robots in South Korea, says Sang-rok, that the term e-learning has given way to r-learning where the "r" stands for robotic.

Children can see and touch a robotic system, he says. They're open and positive about them. They're used to the idea of automatic cleaning systems at home and adapt easily to the digital world. Even so, he says, despite tremendous recent growth, there is still some negative feeling about robots because people believe that children still need to learn from a natural environment in which computers do not play such a major role.

First attempts were unsuccessful

The first computers that were developed specifically for children with a specially designed keyboard and screen did not produce the results anticipated. With hindsight, there wasn't enough content available, so that when parents bought the system, the children quickly got bored with the software that came with it.

Sang-rok says it taught industry and developers the lesson that, in terms of product service components and added value [servitization in marketing terms], they need to ensure that there are complementary products available whenever they bring out a new system. One example he cites in this sense is the case of the iPhone. He says that without the servitization aspects of iTunes, it is likely that the system would never have succeeded as it has done.

r-learning – a change in paradigm

This change in manufacturing philosophy has brought about a paradigmatic shift in education with the move towards the r-learning system.

In South Korea, during 2010, roughly 1 000 kindergartens were supplied with an intelligent service robot and corresponding software. In 2011 a further 2 000 are being equipped and in 2012 that figure will rise to 5 000. This means that more than half of Korea's kindergartens will be involved in the programme.

The aim of the system is not to provide robots to kindergartens but intelligent service robot hardware with complementary educational content such as stories and songs. At the same time, the state has put together an education plan designed for the teachers, and has set up a networked communication system so that the children's parents can themselves monitor behaviour and progress.

Teacher support

When the children arrive in the morning, instead of simply sticking their name label in a book, they talk to the robot. The children think the robots understand and all day long the curriculum is complemented by the presence of the robotic system.

In a conventional system, says Sang-rok, the teacher takes a photo and collects materials from all the children, but when the system is adapted to encompass a robot, the children make the report themselves; they take their own photos and make their own voice recordings. The teacher can then use the material in conjunction with database software so that the parents can check the digital filing system at a distance instead of having to be there in person to see the results themselves.

Because the educational society is conservative and not particularly open to adopting new systems, the government realized the need for a suitable support structure between the various actors and the robotic industry experts, says Sang-rok. The South Koreans have set up special sessions for parents and teachers and produced textbooks including competitions to promote the new learning system.

Introducing the robotic learning programme has freed up time for the teachers to concentrate more on individual children while the robot looks after and supervises the rest of the class, says Sang-rok.

Front cover of the January 2007 edition of Scientific American. Front cover of the January 2007 edition of Scientific American.
Alina and the robot Alina and the robot
Robotic learning Robotic learning