ROBOTS that can understand human emotions are being brought into Scottish schools to help with teaching. It’s hoped the machines will be used to assist in subjects such as history or geography – and because they can sense when children are bored, frustrated or unhappy, they’ll be able to adapt their teaching methods in a simpler way to a human tutor.

The robots – designed as part of an EU-funded project – are being tested in classrooms by Heriot-Watt University researchers as part of the “Emote” project, which has partners in Sweden, Germany and Portugal.
The team has created a learning environment that includes a socially aware robotic tutor and a large touch table. Earlier this month, they visited pupils aged 12-14 in Penicuick High School, Midlothian, to test out the robots. The researchers hope schools across the country will eventually invest in the machines.

Co-leader of Heriot-Watt’s Emote project, Ruth Aylett, a social robotics specialist and professor of computer science, said: “We’re developing robots that can sit comfortably in human social environments which could be the workplace or the home, or an education environment like a school.”

The robot tutor is designed to be “empathetic”, to mimic humans. “A real human teacher doesn’t just tell people things, they also monitor your state – how you’re doing, how you feel about it, your level of motivation,” said Aylett. “Those aspects of teaching are very significant. If we want to use robots to help teachers – not substitute for them – we have to start thinking about those other things that teachers do.”

The robot tutor has a camera that picks up the facial expression and body language of the pupil using it. One of the tasks it specialises in is teaching map reading. “If it looks like the pupil is bored,” said Aylett, “the robot will try to motivate them, or tell them a joke to cheer them up. If it looks like the pupil needs extra help, the robot might suggest they try and use the compass.”

Although the equipment currently costs thousands of pounds, Aylett hopes prices will eventually become affordable for schools, as happened with computers.

David Lane, director of the world-renowned Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, said the opportunities for the future use of artificial intelligence in Scotland were “huge”, including healthcare, energy and manufacturing. Aberdeen’s offshore oil and gas industries already use robotics, he said. “If you’re going to have divers in deep water you would rather have robots because it’s dangerous,” he added.

And while currently, most of the work is done by remotely operated vehicles, a new generation of “autonomous” vehicles is coming into use. “They have no physical connection to the service, they don’t have an umbilical cable,” said Lane.

Those new-generation robots will be able to make decisions about which tasks need done. “They have a manipulator arm and can do things like turn a valve or clean something and that opens up a lot of robotic challenges because they’re doing this completely autonomously,” said Lane.

Robots are already used in hospitals to perform tasks such as cleaning or carrying laundry. Glasgow’s new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital has a £1.3 million fleet of 26 robots which are used to move medical equipment. The next step, said Lane, is robots being used to help nurses work with patients. “A 60kg nurse finds it really hard to move a 100kg patient on their own, so you can imagine a robot helping with that,” he said.

Robots are also being tested in social care situations. Paro, a Japanese-designed fluffy seal robot that interacts with patients, has been clinically proven to help people with dementia. Unlike humans, robots don’t get frustrated or annoyed with their patients, explained Lane, and Paro is already being trialled by health trusts south of the Border.

Questions have been raised, however, over the role of artificial intelligence in social and educational environments, and trades unions warn that technology should not replace human interaction in the workplace. “Technology is a wonderful thing,” said Dave Watson, Scottish organiser of Unison, adding that it needed to be used “sensibly” and in a way that wouldn’t diminish human interaction. He said robot tutors were not a replacement for classroom assistants.

“I can understand why some academics would get excited about that but frankly the idea that in a classroom, a robot is going to replace the ability of a human being to detect emotion and provide the right sort of support is unimaginable,” he said. “Yes, you can do some routine things in that way but I’m highly sceptical that robots can have the emotional intelligence that a classroom assistant or a teacher can have.
“This would apply in other areas like care of the elderly. Emotional intelligence by the carers is an absolutely key element.”

Experts say technology has replaced 800,000 jobs in the UK and created 3.5 million roles at the same time in the last 15 years. Dr Ram Ramamoorthy, of Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics, envisages robots working alongside humans rather than taking over jobs. “The kinds of robots we are building today are intended to be assisting devices,” he said. “In my own lab, we’re interested in building the kinds of robots that could take their place alongside a nurse or to assist a car mechanic.”

We may think of the future of robots in terms of dramatic things like driverless cars, but according to Ramamoorthy, the real revolution will be more mundane.