May the teacher of our kids be a robot?

In the latest years the literature on robots and education has addressed the inspiring possibility to insert robots as educators in classes. However, a full list of case studies – despite the ones of Saya in Japan and ARTIE at the Oxford Brooks University – have been lacking so far. This post aims to address this relationship,  somehow complex and for lots barely possible, following a fil rouge aiming to highlight how the harmonious interactions between robot teachers and schoolers aren’t far from being a concrete possibility. Designed to appear and move like humans, and already well equipped to support education, they seems to face yet one major challenge: propose a model -being in control of its premises – and consider which design could let this pedagogy to blossom in hybrid contexts.

I have for you some open questions, reflecting my current considerations on this interesting topic: robotics and education, along with diverse approaches invoking embodied and tacit knowledge related to our personal experienced, had during sensitive ages and dialogues with our educators: the ones being the source of inspiration with unforgettable ingredients.

  1. Have you saw or read already about a robot in education?
  2. Thinking on our historical scenario, could this cooperation be a plausible part of the social contract we signed?
  3. What is happening if I’ll shift the attention from a singular, controlled and delimited case scenario to wide institutional global and cultural contexts in which robots are designed for being educators?
  4. Can a robot design – along with the (a) contextual application – influence the pedagogical formation of learners?
  5. Which characteristics it might have to maintain a stronger – clear – focus on literacy, saw as the first extension of communication skills possessed by educated people able to apply them further…

I’ll do one step back, trying to analyze how these streams of content could be answered considering the elements – theoretical and practical – we need to consider if the aim is to admit we are able to offer a good – or even excellent – formation to our students designing an inclusive future of education where robots take an active role in the network.

We are the products of Western society, shaped by an education branded by the advent of Enlightenment. Our explicit behaviour is oriented towards the acquisition and practice of the essential virtues of Eudaimonia (Eu = good, Daimon = spirit), the Greek word encapsulating in its meaning the human’s flourishing, happiness, prosperity and blessedness.  A concept projected further an individual level, being part of the community we relate to, establishing new and bright relationships.


Mr. Spock famous blessing live long and prosper, for the vintage friends I found even the original Vulcan language dif-tor heh smusma.

Despite this proclaimed optimism towards the future of care, research and excellence, lots of people are still unable to see that technology is a constituent apparatus of humans Eudaimonia and co-evolution, even alliance, during the process that sees humans act and choose a fresh path: the good news is that being neutral is not part of the plan.

Norbert Wiener pointed out this maxima decades ago, engaged to start the realm of cybernetics following in the footsteps drawn centuries ago by Plato. The Greek philosopher used the model of Kybernetes – the aviator – as a personification of both scientific and ethical dexterity.

Both needed to develop adaptive and flexible wisdom, able of self-correction and open to let light in from the corner of one`s mistakes. 

A few days ago, friends commented in a conversation we had that a possible reply to the phenomena of cars traveling at higher speed on roads – actual dangerous objects able to tear off in just one-second life  – driver-less machines offer today an effective response to minimize, at any point and any time, a risk of tragedy. This reduction, or even better, unquestionable annihilation of negative consequences for humans in particular situations, is part of an efficient answer provided by technological research and demanded progress. The ones we could also accept as able to eradicate human free will, to make – and go through – a choice instead of another, being (un)completely aware (or imaginative enough to embody premises) on the full bunch of risks our choices might entail.

If everything would be controlled and standardized, probably the result we have is that human freedom would be tied down when we should operate an experience-based choice: mistakes remains the main source of education, as they enable the learning process to manifest and reach interesting coves. They maintain their allurement thanks to wonderful accidents.

Virtue ethics gravitate towards the open question of what to do and know how to do, especially when is time to achieve well-being and glee both in our private life, showing the required skills to project ourself – proudly –  in society. We are and remain relational human beings that require connection to feel alive and relevant having a place. the concept of practical wisdom – or Phronesis – is important to indicate the procedures human beings need to experience to shape and reshape the inner sense of self-hood that grounds a virtue ethic approach. In other words, Phronesis indicates a form of reflective judgement, capable to take with him diverse embodied, relational and emotional elements defining an ethical challenge.

Rather than a top-down approach, guided by deduction, Phronesis starts to ground its root identifying which general norms, values and principles may apply.

We depend on its inductive approach: especially when the conduct -oriented society structures put ourselves in front of a clashing and insoluble impasse. Sometimes the ways that require from us to follow the rules that societies’ expectations shaped across centuries, the ones we are today so costumed to follow and define as a moral old testament are not a guarantee of guidance and support to solve our issues. Rather, in most of the cases, they place ourselves into a scrape we should get through.

Communication, above other moral virtues such as empathy, perseverance, patience and respect are the fundamental components of ethics, the ones that should be exercised to enable the confession (even to ourselves) we acquired their specifics; the necessary step we waited to fully possess when is time to demonstrate the capability to clearly operate with them.

Judgements that developed gleaning Phronesis’ lymph can be defined as plural, multiple intuitions that assume the complexity of a call invoking from us two forms of knowledge: embodied and tacit.

The ones we learned to familiarize with, during our personal and communitarian experiences, enabling the real ones that signed our live memory and cognition to shape – unequivocally – our current linguistics adagios: think on when our educators motivated us to “follow our heart” and “listen to our gut” as good examples to let us fully accept the safe, intimate atmosphere we wanted continuing to embrace.

Going back in our analysis on educational robots, Phronesis presents some other emerging and concerning relations when is time to define the role and space of robots in front of students.

We saw already that elements such as patience, perseverance, empathy (as a cornerstone of education) should be practiced through an ethic of care. Students need educators able to guide them to see other perspectives of the content that has been shaped through lecturers and dialogical practice: they are the smart and reactive prompter able to have Phronesis and scaffold their virtuous educational landscape. Habits, ethics, values, the “why”-ness of education are there for a purpose: enable the inner flowing of interaction and the “how ” do patterns and principles become materials of practice.

Clarifying and crystallizing the elements we want to have in the future of education, as basic fundamentals, we are on a good way to intend robots as representative of technologies able to transform the people and the contexts they are introduced in. We just need to be patience, remind what the take-home message implies and work even harder to let them reach the status of  Plato’s Kybernetes, able to find his way through knowing what is possible to do and what should be avoided, requiring some fine, virtuous self-correction. This is still a bit far from available reductionist, correct calculus executed with low-error thresholds by robots.

Maybe this is a good timing to start and continue our reflections flow, possible to be enriched by others views and general feedback.


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