Research in AI tends to focus on developing robots who are more capable and efficient than humans, but a new study at École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland is doing just the opposite. When children teach their peers they gain motivation and self esteem — and ultimately they improve themselves, all without realizing. The CoWriter Project has created a robot classroom assistant who is less advanced at handwriting than the most struggling students — giving those pupils someone to learn with and teach.
Scientists from the Computer-Human Interaction Lab at EPFL used the like-able humanoid NAO robot in their research with school children aged six to eight. NAO can be programmed to reproduce common handwriting errors, which it learns from a database of examples of children’s writing. To begin, the child creates a word from small magnetic letters and the robot writes out the word on a tablet screen. The child then identifies any errors the robot has made and corrects them, teaching the robot how to write better and improving their own writing in the process. The robot repeats the task, using algorithms which lead to gradual improvement. Once the child is satisfied, they move on to another word. The robot can even be made to adopt a child’s specific writing difficulties — such as the letter F or H.
The CoWriter system is currently in the prototype stage, but it has been very well received at a primary school where it has been used in lessons with about 70 students. The developers plan to continue testing its effectiveness and benefits in the coming months. Are there other applications for a robot which enables children to teach the skills they are struggling with?