The Ministry of Education in Japan aims to help students with their English skills by using robots. In this classroom, the robot is the teacher. (Photo from NHK)


Robots are an increasing presence in our lives. With robots delivering your food, AI assisting people in homes, and even robots in hospital settings, they’re a part of our daily lives. They even appear in classrooms! At least in Japan. To help students improve their English skills, the Japanese Ministry of Education will launch a program that will place English speaking AI robots in classrooms around the country.


Starting in April 2019, the ministry will launch the program in roughly 500 Japanese classrooms in an effort to improve student’s low oral and written English skills. The program, which will cost around 250 million yen ($3.1 million), will also include study apps and online conversation session with native English speakers.


"AI robots already on the market have various functions. For example, they can check the pronunciation of each student's English, which is difficult for teachers to do," said an official in charge of international education, who asked not to be named.


The rush to improve English skills is an effort to help with the expected increase of tourists expected during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. According to the EF English Proficiency Index in 2017, Japan is currently ranked 37th out of a total of 80 countries. The Ministry of Education is turning to AI specifically since many Japanese schools have difficulty finding qualified teachers for English classes. They also lack the funding to hire trained language assistants.


Introducing robots to classrooms isn’t new to Japan. In 2009, they tried out a robot named Saya, a programming bot trained to give lessons to fifth-graders. Other countries around the world are also getting on board with AI in the classroom. In 2011, Korea’s Robot Research Institute developed Kiro, who took part in kindergarten lessons by playing interactive games and educational videos on its abdomen. Earlier this year, a school in the UK employed an interactive humanoid robot named Steve to help those with autism develop their social skills.


Judging from these initiatives, its clear robots in the classroom will become a more common thing. While they can help students, there are still issues to be aware of. Administrators have to be aware of problems, like hacking and malfunctions, if they’re going to introduce a robot to the classroom. Also, there are more common issues to consider, like vandalism and theft. Maybe this is why we haven’t heard many of these programs in the US.


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