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Scientists have demonstrated that robots can be “taught” how to help teachers in the classroom in just three hours, which could help them to better support children in future.

A team from the University of Plymouth programmed a robot to progressively learn autonomous behaviour from human demonstrations and guidance.
A human teacher controlled the robot, teaching it how to help young pupils in an educational activity, and it was then able to support the children in the same activity autonomously. The advice it subsequently provided was shown to be consistent with that offered by the teacher.
With teachers facing increasing demands on their time, robots such as these could help to take some of the burden out of the classroom.
They also have potential for a number of other sensitive applications of social robots, such as in eHealth and assistive robotics.
Through a series of assessments, the team analysed a system called SPARC (Supervised Progressively Autonomous Robot Competencies).
Although the autonomous robot used actions with a different frequency than the teacher, it only used actions already demonstrated, learned the unique dynamics associated to each type of action, and its behaviour had a positive impact on the children. Indeed, the robot was also able to successfully learn how to support the children with social actions such as praise and encouragement.
The researchers say this could prove especially useful in future human-robot interactions because it would enable scientists to bypass the standard approach to designing robotic controllers, whereby domain experts describe a behaviour to be implemented by engineers. Instead, this approach empowers end-users to directly teach a robot.
Dr Emmanuel Senft, who led the study as part of his PhD research, said: “Creating autonomous social robot behaviours is a core challenge in social robotics, in both technical and ethical terms.
“My dream is that everyone should be able to profit from robots, not only engineers, and I think allowing people to teach robots to interact is the way to go. I hope the method we have proposed here could work in that regard and be applied to a large range of situations, for social and non-social robots.”
Professor Tony Belpaeme, from the University of Plymouth and Ghent University, has worked in the field of social robotics for around two decades and was also involved in the study.
He added: “The positives of using robots to help in a classroom setting are there for everyone to see. But how to set them to work so they provide consistent support to pupils, in a way that teachers can trust, is a real challenge. This study is certainly a positive step towards that. However, one unexpected thing it did show is we perhaps need to build greater acceptance and trust among teachers themselves as they said it did not result in a reduction to their workloads.”

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