Robots are becoming classroom tutors. But will they make the grade?

By Maria Temming

Pondering a tablet screen displaying a town scene, a pre-K student tilts her head to the side and taps her lip thoughtfully.

“What are we trying to find?” asks the plush, red and blue robot called Tega that’s perched on the desk beside the girl. The bot resembles a teddy bear–sized Furby.

“We are trying to find lavender-colored stuff,” the girl explains. Lavender is a new vocabulary word. “OK!” Tega chirps.

The girl uses her forefinger to pan around the scene. She eventually selects an image of a girl — not wearing purple. The game puts a red mark through her choice: wrong.

The girl slumps down in her chair, head dropped to her chest as Tega says, “I’m sure you will do better next time. I believe in you.”

The robot, which MIT researchers are testing with students in a Boston-area public school, tilts toward the girl, who leans in close so that her cheek is right next to Tega’s.

Now it’s the robot’s turn. “Time to perform!” it says. The scene on-screen shifts, as though the bot is telepathically controlling the tablet. “Hmm …”

Tega looks up at its partner, as though seeking confirmation that it’s doing this right, and the girl cups the bot’s cheeks encouragingly. The robot looks back at the screen. The girl rests her hand in the robot’s soft fur and murmurs, “I believe in you.”

This kind of tight connection is typical of child-robot interactions, says MIT social robotics and human-robot interaction researcher Cynthia Breazeal. Her team is investigating how this turn-taking robot can help students learn. Kids have a “special kind of affinity” with robots, she says.

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