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November 18, 2002
The coming age of the nice teacher robots

Over at the blog that got me started, Samizdata, there's a short posting (with a picture) by Perry de Havilland, about a high tech robot dragon, which performs "security" services. One of the commenters asked if this scary beast would eat her AIBO puppy.

I mention the AIBO because, unlike the scary dragon, the AIBO is designed to make friends with its human owners, and especially with children.

Ever since I first heard about the AIBO I was convinced that I was witnessing history fluttering its wings, and in particular the history of education.

I have a prejudice, which researching education issues for this blog is so far only confirming, that computers are changing education not by "changing education" but by changing just about everything in the world except education.

Children are allowed to muck about with computers in their class-rooms, but little now seems to be taught that couldn't have been taught, and probably better, with old-fashioned chalk-and-talk methods, such as they still use in high-powered university departments to explain the complexities of such things as nuclear physics. When children get home, they play games on computers. Lucky children, especially home-schooled children, often get to surf the Internet, and as that gets cheaper, many more will surely do this. But "education" in the sense of the stuff now done by and in schools - shows little sign of being replaced by computers of anything resembling the sort we are now familiar with.

But I think that when historical hindsight eventually gets applied to now, historians may decide that the moment when these robots showed up i.e. now - was the moment when all that started to change.

Children love these robots. Okay, not the dragon, but definitely the AIBO dog. And something you love is something you just might be willing to learn from. I can imagine a robot teaching a foreign language to a kid in a way that no current computer could begin to do, simply because the kid likes it, and trusts it, and wants to talk with it, and might be willing to experiment with other languages just for the fun of it. And rich parents will see that this kind of thing works, and will pay the bills for it. Soon, super-professor robots will be available for fifty quid at Dixons.

I know what a lot of people will say once this prospect becomes plainly visible. Spooky! Dangerous! Maybe even: pass some laws against these beasts now!!

Personally I find this prospect extraordinarily interesting, and not at all unapealing. Scary, yes, because there'll surely be big mistakes and misjudgements. But imagine if this kind of thing could be got approximately right. I believe that it will happen. For remember, however difficult it may be for the technies to devise such things, it only needs one bunch of them to crack it for the thing to happen. (Think of all the other "impossible" things that computers have done, and can now do for petty cash.)

The implications for human history are beyond calculation. One obvious one is that for the first time in many generations, we can anticipate, sooner or later, a world in which children will be unambiguously cleverer and better educated than their parents, so palpably that everyone - the children, the parents, everyone - will know it.

TV, when it first hit, created the first dumbed-down generation. All right, not dumbed down, exactly. This generation was how can I put it politely? differently knowledgeable. The baby boomers are the people I'm talking about, and they (we) know rock and roll, but not the Roman Empire. And the children of the baby boomers have became even more, er, differently knowledgeable. But the technological successors of the same TVs that taught us to forget about our education will, when the super-intelligent robot teacher pets finally arrive, create a similar cultural discontinuity, but in something resembling the opposite direction.

Blah blah blah. If this was an "essay", I'd waffle on for five more pages. Thank heavens for blogs. All hail the shortened attention span. I don't see that changing back again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
Category: Technology

What are you doing, running down such a great resource as TV? Some us *do* actually know about the Roman Empire- those of us who are interested in it- while others of us know about car mechanics or computers or cooking or water ballet. TV doesn't stop people from learning. I'm surprised at you, Brian, for swallowing that one whole!

TV offers tons of material for education. The dumbing down happens more in the state schools [read: forced 'learning'] than by things that children actually are interested in and choose for their selves.

Looking to robot teacher pets to slip an education into a child's head [empty bucket theory of education?] while they're not looking sounds quite manipulative and doomed to failure.

It's quite simple- help children explore the things they are interested in. We are all learning all the time. TV and computers combined with caring human resources and real life experience get my vote over a robot any day- though we do enjoy our resident robot, who is equipped with (fake) lasers and a tray to carry drinks on.

Comment by: lars on November 20, 2002 04:45 PM
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