Sligo schoolchildren’s new teacher will be Nao – a robot

Trial will see seven- and eight-year-olds pupils learn French vocabulary

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Some primary school pupils in Co Sligo are in for a treat in the coming weeks – they will be learning French from a robot called Nao.

The “social robot”, which has the capacity to teach many subjects including art, music, literacy and maths, will be teaching French vocabulary to seven- and eight-year-olds under the watchful eye of IT Sligo student Debbie Woodward.

Woodward, who is doing a masters degree by research in artificial intelligence (AI) and social robotics at the college, will introduce Nao to children in five primary schools in the county in the coming weeks, once Covid restrictions for visiting “staff” are clarified. Nao will be teaching in a mix of urban, rural, Deis and non-Deis schools.

“This ties in well with the department’s proposal to introduce a modern languages module into the revised primary school curriculum,” she said.

The researcher is adamant that robots won’t be replacing teachers in the future. “I firmly believe that teachers have nothing to fear from social robots. They will act as teaching tools or aids for the teacher.”

Meanwhile, her IT Sligo supervisor, John Pender, has called for a national conversation about the use of social robots in health, education and social care settings, saying that the ethical and other issues related to widespread use of AI need to be discussed.

He believes assistant nurse robots will be working in many Irish hospitals within five years, and has already, with a colleague, been investigating their use in the care of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“An awful lot of the work that significant numbers of human beings have been undertaking will be replaceable by technology. It behoves us to have this conversation now and to be prepared,” said Dr Pender, a senior lecturer in social policy and foresight studies at IT Sligo.

Care settings

He and colleague Dr Perry Share are leading an EU-funded research project, looking at how humans and robots can work side by side in care settings. Their focus is on how social robots will affect the training, career development and everyday work of professionals such as nurses, teachers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and care managers.

“This is where we believe the future of care is moving to,” said Dr Pender. “We are not evangelically cheerleading. We are not uncritical advocates of this because as is well documented in the literature, there are a number of major concerns about introducing social robots into health and social care settings.”

One of the research partners, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland (ASI), has trialled Paro, a therapeutic robot in the form of a cuddly baby seal.

Dr Pender and Dr Share say while Paro is designed to comfort and socialise people with dementia, there are ethical considerations such as privacy and the risk of infantilising users.

Demonstrating how Paro responds to human contact like a pet, Dr Pender said: “Here I am an adult, sitting , stroking a cuddly toy. So is there a risk that we are disrespecting the end user?”.

He said that Japanese inventor Takanori Shibata, who designed Paro as an alternative to the pharmaceutical management of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, deliberately chose not to include video cameras in its eyes for reasons of privacy.

The researchers believe social robots might have made a difference in hospitals and nursing home settings throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

“The big thing about Covid was the infection control,” said Dr Pender. “So how many human lives might we have saved if we had assistant robot nurses or robot care assistants in the hospitals and nursing homes who could not infect vulnerable people?” While robots could not have replaced human beings in the care of someone with dementia “they could have augmented that care. They could have reduced the extent of human to human contact time.”

The IT Sligo lecturers were in 2018 granted €345,000 from the EU-funded Erasmus-plus programme to lead PRoSPEro (Pedagogy of Robotics in the Social Professions in Europe), a three-year study involving seven European universities including NUI Galway, as well as organisations specialising in social care.

As part of the project they are designing a masters programme to be delivered at IT Sligo and two European universities, which will equip health and care professionals to use social robots in the workplace.

Fundamental shift

They believe the course, the first of its kind anywhere, could create a fundamental shift in how the caring professions are valued.

The lecturers believe changing demographics in the future will impact on the demand for social robots as shrinking populations will mean fewer people available to care for the elderly.

They cited a project in two hospitals in Texas where a robot assistant nurse called Moxi has for “two years been doing manual tasks such as bringing blood samples to the lab. Between now and 2030, there will be a demand for 60,000 nurses in Texas that they will not be able to meet domestically because of a clampdown in immigration,” said Dr Share.

Social robots won’t be confined to classrooms and care settings in the future.

The first robot brothel in the world was opened in Barcelona in 2017 and Dr Pender says “intimate robots” will be available in the future for those who want them.

“Some people might see that as a dystopian future, and one that is devoid of humanity and exploitative .

“But all this is no longer in the realms of science fiction.”