Robot takes over Tokyo classroom

TOKYO (Reuters) - Saya the teacher doesn’t mind being poked or pinched, or if the students play in class: she’s an android designed to show children that science and technology can be fun subjects.

Saya, a life-like female who started her career as a robot receptionist at Japanese companies and was then re-programed to teach, gave a lesson to fifth-graders at Tokyo’s Kudan Elementary School after being carried to the podium.

Professor Hiroshi Kobayashi of Tokyo University of Science, who built Saya, says she’s not meant to replace human teachers, just to highlight the joys of technology.

“We are not looking at making something that will take over from teachers, but rather our main reason for building this robot is to use new technology to teach children about technology,” Kobayashi told Reuters.

But Saya may be able to help in schools where there is a shortage of teachers, he added.

“In the countryside and in some small schools, there are children who do not have the opportunity to come into contact with new technology and also there are few teachers out there that can teach these lessons,” Kobayashi said.

“So we hope to be able to develop this robot so it can be remotely controlled to teach these classes.”

Many of the children were mesmerized by Saya, and did not take their eyes off her throughout the lecture. When class was over, some students poked her face and pinched her.

“It’s so much more fun than regular classes,” said 10-year-old Nanako Iijima.

The children’s human teacher, however, was not as impressed with the robot as her students.

“On the one hand I am impressed that they’ve got robots to go this far, but on the other hand they still have a long way to research before they create a truly robotic teacher,” Akito Fukuda, the school’s science teacher said.

Japan, home to almost half of the world’s 800,000 industrial robots, expects the industry to expand to $10 billion in the future including models that can care for its fast-growing elderly population.

Writing by Olivier Fabre, editing by Miral Fahmy