Exclusive: Singapore is using robots to teach social skills

By Charlene Chin

Robots are being deployed in classrooms to educate the young.

It’s a weekend, but these children are back at school.

They’re not brooding over the extra class: in fact, quite the opposite. They’re happily queuing up in a makeshift supermarket, smiling and bobbling about. Why is this exercise so fun for them? The cashier happens to be a robot.

This is all part of a new scheme to prepare young Singaporean pre-schoolers for the future. The technology assists them with social development, and prepares them for a world of digital assistants and robotic colleagues. “In five to 10 years, they might see a robot in the checkout counter,” notes Adrian Lim, director of education at the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

IMDA is leading this new pilot project in partnership with the Softbank robotics company and Nanyang Technological University. GovInsider spoke with the key players to find out more.

The new teaching sidekick


Two Singaporean preschools have been trialling out Softbank robots since June. Two humanoid assistants - Pepper and Nao - teach geography, emotional skills, and recycling, amongst other lesson plans. For example, in one class a robot listens to a teacher read a story and gives emotional responses according to the plotline. Each trial class comprises roughly 12 to 16 students.

Why start in preschools? Children aged five to six have underdeveloped cognitive capabilities, explains Chen I-Ming, Director of the Intelligent Systems Centre at NTU. “At this younger age, I think it’s a good time to shape them”. Once children are older than 10, they are less intrigued by robots.

This is, in fact, Lim’s second pilot using robots in Singaporean preschools. Last year, he launched the Playmaker scheme, where children used educational toys to learn vocabulary, logic, sequencing and navigation with educational toys. Robots assisted with the basics of the curriculum.

Now, he says, “we have gone beyond introducing toy robots”. This trial uses more advanced equipment for a broader range of tasks. “We’re interested in seeing how robots can support the teaching and learning process in the classroom.”

How is Singapore doing this?


Lim’s team approached the pilot methodically. First, they had teachers read books to the classes explaining to them what robots are. “When you introduce any new technology, you can’t just put the tech into the classroom without preparing the ground”, Lim says. “I don’t think you can assume that kids know everything about robots”, so it lies on the teachers to educate them.

Equally, teachers had to be given some technical understanding, and were consulted on potential lesson plans. “At any point before the lessons were rolled out, everybody gave their input”, Lim says.

Meanwhile, NTU provided academic expertise and looked to see how the two humanoid robots could be used appropriately. “In each specific lesson, we utilised different robot capabilities”, explains Chen. “The reason why we can keep the kids excited, because everytime they see the robots, they can do something different”, he adds.

New and relevant skills


There have been mixed results in the past five months. The teachers felt that robots in the classroom were a useful addition: “There was higher retention, and a lot of kids look forward to coming to school”, he says.

However, success is very much dependent on discipline in the classroom. “Every child wants to rush toward the robot” and touch it, he says. Teachers have to manage that instinct and ensure the class does not get overexcited.

Teachers should also have some technical understanding, he says. This indicates the future skills needed in the education profession. “You need the teacher to be able to manage on the ground” if the robot malfunctions. Lim recalls an instance when Pepper’s battery ran out: the teacher successfully turned it into a lesson on electricity and batteries.

The tech does currently have its flaws. For example, the robots only have a battery life span of 30 minutes - just enough to cover a class, Chen says; and “it cannot recognise your voice in very noisy environments”.

But for Lim and his colleagues, this pilot project is just the tip of the iceberg. “Moving forward, you have really got to bring everybody together” - the teachers and the industry players with the best tech, he says. Robots fascinate children, and they can provide support to teachers on a vital area of cognitive development.

Will the scheme soon be adapted by the masses? “Currently we are studying the findings”, Lim says, consulting both NTU and Softbank on the best move forward. “We think there is scope for us to deploy this to more pre-schools."

One characteristic of a Smart Nation might be the younger generation flocking to schools just to meet their robot classmate. After all, one day a robot could be their future colleague too.