Chinese preschoolers have a new teacher, a 60-cm tall autonomous robot who tells stories and challenges kids with logic problems. An armless robot with tiny wheels, inbuilt cameras that acts as both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera that enables users to record video journals, Keeko is currently a teacher’s assistant, but its creators would like it to take over the classroom one day.
In China, where robots are being designed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to older citizens, give legal advice and now, with Keeko, to teach, engineers seem to believe that our futures will be mostly automated.
At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education near Beijing, kids help Keeko find its way through a maze of mats as part of a problem-solving activity. Each time they answer correctly, Keeko’s face lights up.
"Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn," said Candy Xiong, a teacher who works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer. "When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it."
Keeko robots are now in 600 preschools across the country and its creators hope to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia. Beijing is investing money into developing artificial intelligence as part of its "Made in China 2025" plan. Last year, a Chinese company launched a robot that can converse and make facial expressions.
According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world's leading industrial robot stock, with roughly 340,000 units, working in manufacturing in factories across the country. The service robot market, which includes automated medical equipment as well as vacuum cleaners, is worth more than $1.32 billion. It is expected to grow to $4.9 billion by 2022, says Research In China, a market research company.
Last week, Beijing hosted the World Robot Conference, showcasing machines that can diagnose diseases, play badminton and entertain audiences with musical skills, and last year, a group of Beijing monks unveiled a 61cm-high robot monk that dispenses mantras and advice on how to attain nirvana.
Xie Yi, principal of the preschool where Keeko is being tested, believes that for now, robots cannot replace human beings in the classroom. "To teach you must be able to interact, have a human touch, eye contact, and facial expressions. These are the things that make an education," Xie said. "It's not just the language or the content, it's everything."
She said the Keeko, which cost about $1,500, the equivalent of the monthly salary of a preschool teacher, may have some advantages, though, over a human educator. "The best thing about robots? They're more stable (than humans)," she said, laughing.