When I was but a wee younglin’ — the most robotic thing we had to “teach” us was the handheld “Speak & Spell” from Texas Instruments — which was merely a more glorified version of the “See N Say.”

Today, I’m reading about “Robots in the Classroom” that are infinitely patient, coded to be inhumanly pleasant, and who have the ability to “interact” with you by learning your behavior patterns and adapting to your mood to better help you cope with understanding:

In a handful of laboratories around the world, computer scientists are developing robots like this one: highly programmed machines that can engage people and teach them simple skills, including household tasks, vocabulary or, as in the case of the boy, playing, elementary imitation and taking turns.

So far, the teaching has been very basic, delivered mostly in experimental settings, and the robots are still works in progress, a hackers’ gallery of moving parts that, like mechanical savants, each do some things well at the expense of others.

Yet the most advanced models are fully autonomous, guided by artificial intelligence software like motion tracking and speech recognition, which can make them just engaging enough to rival humans at some teaching tasks.

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.

Aristotle taught us we learn by imitation — and we also know we learn by watching — so where do these non-human, emotionally inert, robotic devices leave us as mentoring teachers and classroom caretakers?

Do they create cold disrepair in the dark?  Or do non-sentient metal and plastic beings hardily drag us into the light of a new day?

If our humanity is the only thing that will ever separate us from the robots among us — and who are already watching us and reporting us — and teaching us how to be calculating and perfect just like them, how do we expect them to treat us?  Do we ever want to create synthetic sympathy and enterically wired empathy and have it slathered against us?

How much of our teaching and learning do we ever want to give up to technology?  We already let the television coddle and coo our toddlers.  We already let the Google search box replace the discipline of evaluative inquiry in the high school classroom.  We already let TurnItIn.com do the hard work of policing college research papers.

If we are so willing to let the robots teach us and to take over the role of — Technology As Educator —  then what is left for the rest of us except to become slaves to a science founded fifty year ago that is now, finally, ready to represent and replace us?


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