Refugee children may be taught by robots

January 9, 2016 11:00 am

More than a million refugees entered Germany from war-torn countries such as , and last year.
Many of them are families with young children seeking asylum, safety and a better life.
And
many will stay: around half of the new arrivals have already applied
for asylum, according to German Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias
Plate, which means German primary schools will see a massive influx of
new students in the coming years.
One big problem is that many of
these young immigrants don’t yet know the language of their adopted
country – putting them at risk of quickly falling behind their peers.
But German scientists think they’ve found a solution: robots.

Many of the families with young children are seeking asylum, safety and a better life. File Photo / NZH. 
Researchers
from the University of Bielefeld in northeast Germany have started a
three-year project to see whether an autonomous, programmable robot can
make it easier for 4 and 5-year-old children to gain the language skills
they need to succeed in the classroom immediately.

The French company Aldebaran Robotics developed the 58cm tall robot named NAO (pronounced “now”) in 2004.
Using
a tablet, a camera and a microphone, NAO will help newly arrived
children learn German by showing them pictures to convey simple words
and expressions.
NAO robots are already proving they can help kids learn.
Researchers
at the University of Denver say NAO robots are better than people at
triggering social responses in autistic children, who are often confused
by facial expressions and vocal inflections.
Aldebaran says NAO works because it is infinitely patient and eminently approachable.
To
make sure kids are comfortable around NAO, the robot is built to
resemble a small, cute human, with a torso, a head, two arms and two
legs.
It can speak, walk, even dance, and has the ability to recognise faces and voices.
At
Yale University, computer researchers Aditi Ramachandran and
Brian Scassellati are studying how 10 and 11-year-olds interact with
robots, with the aim of developing software that enables robots to
understand if a student is sad or happy and recognise the progress they
make as they learn math.
Meanwhile the Bielefeld team are working
to program the NAO robots to recognise and react to the children’s
language levels as they progress, which they believe will make the
robots even more effective teachers.
Kirsten Bergmann, one of the
researchers on the team, says they hope to have an army of NAO robots –
which cost about US$7500 ($11,280) each – in classrooms around Europe
within 18 months.
This pilot programme is part of the bigger
L2TOR project, which started on November 25 and brought together
linguists and robotics experts from universities across Europe to figure
out how to use robots to teach children foreign languages.
They’ll start with the newly arrived refugees but eventually the robots could help kids all over the world become polyglots.

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