Social robots tend to be associated with futuristic science fiction movies, like Vision, the android from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or C-3PO from Star Wars. In reality, they have rewarding applications in our present day. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are studying how artificial intelligence and education might intersect.
“Robots occupy this special niche,” said Kaleb Bishop, a second year PhD student in the Department of Computer Science. “Social robots in general are a particular tool that aren’t quite human, but not inanimate.”
Bishop is a member of the Human Interaction and Robotics (HIRO) group in the department which is working to develop robot technologies that enable cooperation with humans. As a graduate from Yale with a degree in cognitive science, Bishop brings a unique mindset to this particular field.
“My start in robotics was a slow migration from neuroscience to computational neuroscience and psychology, to more psychology, like human-robot interactions with AI and robotics,” Bishop said.
Within HIRO, Bishop and the team are focusing on creating applications for AI and robotics in an educational setting.
“I’m trying to find ways that we can leverage what we know about social psychology and what we are capable of in terms of AI right now into making robot partners for students both in and outside the classroom,” Bishop said.
Educational applications of robotics can open doors to a more immersive and personalized learning experience, which is the main goal of this research. The technology being studied by the HIRO group would not replace teachers, but would instead serve as a resource in the classroom. Bishop noted that in many public K-12 schools, teachers have a significant number of students per class, making it difficult to provide one-on-one instruction.
The use of AI technology would theoretically eliminate this difficulty. Bishop would like to see a future where robots are assistive tools, integrated into every classroom to help with activities like group moderation, one-on-one help and instruction.
Although the end goal sounds both achievable and promising, there are several significant considerations that Bishop is taking into account.
“Addressing racial inequality that already exists in a classroom is a huge problem in terms of the technical aspects,” Bishop said.
In general, and especially for students of color, robotics and AI are not technologies that evoke comfortable or friendly emotions. Based on current social and cultural understanding, robots tend to be more associated with surveillance and authoritarianism, according to Bishop. The effective addition of robots into a classroom could prove to be difficult, which is one of the main challenges Bishop was tasked with researching.
“We know that inequity of access to education and technology has negatively affected — and continues to negatively affect — minoritized populations,” said Assistant Professor Alessandro Roncone, who leads the HIRO group. “Kaleb's work can shed a new light on the problem of co-designing effective AI pedagogies alongside minoritized students, rather than ‘for’ them.”
The language used by students and AI may also prove to be a barrier to effective practice. Language and vocabulary are grounded in the contextual information that accompanies them, making it a challenge to teach AI technology these very human-like qualities. Robots don’t have the intuition that a teacher has, and they often lack the ability to explain information in a different, more accessible way.
“It’s key that you are able to understand the student, and the student is able to understand you,” Bishop said.
Robotics, AI and education are the intersection of this research, which was funded by the Engineering Education and AI-Augmented Learning Interdisciplinary Research Theme (IRT). Interdisciplinary Research Themes in the college are made up of faculty, staff and students. They help researchers coordinate faculty hires, share facilities and use seed funding to leverage work that could provide transformational societal impact. This particular IRT is a new addition to the college effort, and has been making strides since its inception. It is an intersection of education and technology that Bishop is passionate about.
Despite the challenges that face them, Bishop is excited for a future where their research becomes a reality.
“Incorporating teaching into research and vice versa can be really rewarding,” they said.