Five years ago the South Korean government presented 500 schools with robots, primarily to assist in the teaching of English. A knowledge of English is an essential attribute for any even moderately ambitious citizen of that country. These robots were so successful that the number available was subsequently much increased. With robot assistance the more talented children learnt faster, so the teachers were left with more time with the weaker pupils. Teacher reaction was uniformly positive - they loved having them. The robot could also take over from the teacher some of the more mundane and tedious tasks, such as taking the register and marking test results.
The robot in question, the "iroboQ", is about child-sized, mobile on wheels, with movable arms, head and "face", so unlike a computer can communicate by "body-language" as well as by text, pictures and speech. So the children can establish a relationship with it, as they might with a doll, not all that different from what they might with a human.
Mark thought we were still at a very early stage in the development of human-robot interaction, but the possibilities were enormous, even though it might take a few decades yet. He reminded us of the reaction of those who ran the American telegraph system when Alexander Graham Bell suggested they should adapt their network for long-distance telephone calls: "Your idea that people in different cities should want to talk to each other is preposterous!" So he had to start his own company (AT&T) to do it.
One application that is already catching on is that of robot vacuum cleaners. Apparently about half of them have been given a name by the household that owns them. One member of the audience, in response to Mark's question, told us that hers was called "Robbie", and that she was in the habit of making light-hearted remarks to it! A later questioner about the effect of floor obstructions was told that people tend to adapt their house to the robot, keeping the floor clear of obstructions, e.g. removing their Persian carpets to give it a clear sweep.
The lecturer then moved on to possible robot use in medicine and the care of the elderly. As people age, they lose certain abilities. Some of these can be taken over by a robot, thereby keeping them independent for longer. A robot could take over many of the activities of a "carer", with the advantage of being with the patient permanently, not just occasionally. It could monitor their condition, e.g. blood pressure and pulse rate, and send an alarm to summon human help in any case of emergency. And it could display a "virtual" visit by the doctor, which could be much more acceptable if the face and voice were those of a doctor already known personally. There was some evidence that a robot carer might sometimes get on better with the patient than a human one!
By this stage the talk had become more of a question-and-answer session. Someone asked whether a robot, armed with camera and telephone, could be programmed to look after a second home, perhaps overseas, wandering around and inspecting it and checking various sensors. The answer seemed to be that it would indeed be feasible. And it could not only clean the floor, but cleaning the windows too was a future objective!
Mark concluded by saying that there was a need for programmers who could develop these robot-human interactions. This country had a great record in developing computer games, and there was something in common there. He liked to think that some day there would be an Oxford department devoted to just that.
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