Robot teachers are on the way

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today about robotic teachers. An excerpt:

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines
should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely
patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects
like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat
developmental problems like autism.

Several countries have been testing teaching machines in classrooms.
South Korea, known for its enthusiasm for technology, is “hiring”
hundreds of robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is
experimenting with robots that would teach English.

Already, these advances have stirred dystopian visions, along with the
sort of ethical debate usually confined to science fiction. “I worry
that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as
the instructor,” said Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten
group at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they will
see it as the master.”

Most computer scientists reply that they have neither the intention, nor
the ability, to replace human teachers. The great hope for robots, said
Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain
Sciences at the University
of Washington, “is that with the right kind of technology at a
critical period in a child’s development, they could supplement learning
in the classroom.”

Link: Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot.

I don't think you can fault the individual computer scientists' intentions here, and it may well be that robots offer unique value in certain special situations like working with autistic children. But I have to agree with those who find this trend disturbing. I don't think Resnick's worry about seeing robots "as the master" is the worst problem. Our society values technology more than it values teachers. These robots aren't solving a problem that couldn't be solved better with people. And down the road it's not hard to see the day when cheap robots become much more than just a supplement.

To repeat a quote I posted 5 years ago:

"In
the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich
will get teachers."

Stephen Kindel, quoted by Todd Oppenheimer in The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology.