Talk Robot to Me
A tiny android that teaches German is helping refugee children better adapt to their new country
IN 2015, over a million refugees from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq entered Germany. Many of them are families with young children, and many will stay: According to German Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate, half of the new arrivals have already applied for asylum, which means in the coming years German primary schools will see a massive influx of new students. But many of these young immigrants don’t yet know the language of their adopted country—putting them at risk to quickly fall behind their peers. German scientists think they’ve found a solution: robots.
Researchers from the University of Bielefeld have launched a three-year project to see whether an autonomous, programmable robot can make it easier for 4- and 5-year-old children to gain the language skills they need to succeed in the classroom immediately. The French company Aldebaran Robotics developed the 23-inch-tall robot named NAO (pronounced “now”) in 2004. Using a tablet, a camera and a microphone, NAO will help newly arrived children learn German by showing them pictures to convey simple words and expressions.
To make sure kids are comfortable around NAO, the robot is built to resemble a small, cute human, with a torso, a head, two arms and two legs. It can speak, walk—even dance—and has the ability to recognize faces and voices. Researchers at the University of Denver say NAO robots are better than people at triggering social responses in autistic children, who are often confused by facial expressions and vocal inflections.
The Bielefeld team is working to program the NAO robots to recognize and react to the children’s language levels as they progress. Kirsten Bergmann, one of the researchers on the team, says they hope to have an army of NAO robots in classrooms around Europe within 18 months. Eventually, the robots could help kids all over the world become polyglots.