Parents know that even if their child does not have attention problems there will be times when they can get distracted or simply not pay attention. All of us have dozed off in class from time to time, if we didn’t get enough sleep the night before, if we ate too much sugar and it wears off, or if the class is particularly boring. If we had a robotic teacher that monitors our attention and then uses techniques to grab our attention would that have kept you awake?

According to a recent study conducted by Bilge Mutlu and Dan Szafir out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a robot teacher could improve student learning and memory retention.

“We wanted to look at how learning happens in the real world,” says Mutlu. “What do human teachers do and how can we draw on that to build an educational robot that achieves something similar.


Several Japanese and Korean schools are testing out robotic teachers for different reasons. A robotic teacher is set up to monitors students’ attention levels, and to mimic the techniques that human teachers use to hold their pupils’ attention. It is touted to end the snoozing, especially for students who do their lessons online. Tests have indicated that the robot can boost a student’s memory and ability to learn and retain their lesson.

Educators believe that intelligent tutoring systems using virtual teachers to interact with students could play a very important role in the expanding area of online education. The problem with online courses is that it is nearly impossible to know whether the student is concentrating and engaging with the lesson.

Human teachers use a lot of different tricks in order to help his or her students keep focused, such as change in voice pitch or tone, using hand motions to emphasis a point, or to engage their students in interactive questions and answers. Virtual teachers employ the same techniques in order to keep their students’ attention.

Mutlu and Szafir programmed a Wakamaru humanoid robot, built by Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The android is a sophisticated robot with vision, auditory and touch sensors. The researchers told their student subjects a story in a one-on-one situation, and then tested them afterwards to see how much they had remembered. Engagement levels were monitored using a regular EEG sensor to monitor the area of the brain that manages learning and concentration.

When they saw a significant decrease in certain brain signals, which indicated that the student’s attention level had fallen, the system sent a signal to the robot to trigger a cue. “We can’t do it just at any given moment, we have to try and do it like human teachers do,” says Mutlu.

The students were first told a short story about the animals that make up the Chinese zodiac so the researchers could get a baseline EEG reading. The robot then told a 10-minute story based on a little-known Japanese folktale, called My Lord Bag of Rice – something the student was unlikely to have heard before. The robot uses hand gestures and voice inflection, such as the teacher does, in order to grab the student’s attention as the EEG levels dipped. These gestures could be extreme arm extensions, such as to indicate a high mountain.

Two other groups were tested, but there were no clues given by the robots, or they were intertwined randomly within the story. After the story, students were asked a few questions about the Chinese zodiac in order to distract them, and then asked a series of questions about the folktale.

As expected, students who were given a cue by the robot when their attention started to wander recalled more of the story than the other two groups, answering an average of 9 out of 14 questions correctly, as compared with just 6.3 when the robot gave no cues at all. The results were presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas.

According to Andrew Ng, director of Artificial Intelligence Lab at California’s Stanford University, this study could have “significant implications for the field of education.” He went on to say, “The vision of automatically measuring student engagement so as to build a more interactive teacher is very exciting.”




About the author:

Ron White is a memory speaker




New Scientist – Mind-reading robot teachers keep children focused:

Wired – Wakamaru Bot at Your Service: