Talk Robot to Me

A tiny an­droid that teaches Ger­man is help­ing refugee chil­dren bet­ter adapt to their new coun­try

Newsweek - - NEWS -

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.

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