In South Korea, science fiction has become reality, with 30 robots teaching English to young students as part of a unique pilot program.
According to Physorg.com via Agence France-Presse (AFP), the robots are called Engkey.
The white egg-shaped robot was developed by the Korea Institute of Science of Technology (KIST); they began teaching classes Monday at 21 elementary schools in the city of Daegu.
The 29 robotic teachers are about 3.3 feet high and have a TV display for a face. They wheel around the classroom speaking to the students, reading books to them, and dancing to music by moving their head and waving their arms.
The robots display the avatar face of a Caucasian woman and are remotely controlled by English teachers in the Philippines who see and hear the students thanks to a remote control system.
Cameras are able to detect the Filipino English teachers’ facial movements and display them on the avatar’s face, Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist at KIST said to AFP.
“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea.
Besides reading books, the robots also use software to sing songs and play alphabet games with the young students.
“The kids seemed to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting. But some adults also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person,” explained Kim Mi-Young, an official at Daegu city education office.
Kim said that some robots may be sent to remote areas of South Korea that are usually avoided by foreign English teachers.
She also said the robots are in a testing phase. But officials might think about hiring them on full time if scientists are able upgrade them, make them easier to use and more affordable.
“Having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers,” Kim said.
She made sure to stress that the experiment was not about replacing real human teachers with programmable robots. “We are helping upgrade a key, strategic industry and all the while giving children more interest in what they learn.”
The four-month pilot program was supported by the government, which spent 1.58 billion won or 1.37 million dollars.
Scientists have had pilot programs in schools since 2009 to develop robots that teach English, math, science and other subjects at different grade levels with a targeted price tag of five to eight million won.
Sagong said that the robots, which currently cost 10 million won each, are meant to back up human teachers but could eventually have a larger role in education.
The mechanical teachers can be a useful tool to sharpen language skills for many people who feel uneasy about talking with actual foreigners, he said.
“Plus, they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan… all you need is a repair and upgrade every once in a while.”
Let’s hope the robots in South Korea don’t go from educating humans to eradicating them. Because they’d make their way over here eventually and our education system is already bad enough.