“Weak Robots” Helping Children in Japan Unlock Their Potential
Newsfrom JapanSociety Education Science
Children are drawn to science out of a natural curiosity to learn how the world around them works. As they grow, though, this fascination tends to wane. What can be done then to foster a lifelong interest in science? We looked at how the Japanese government and researchers are turning to robots and science-based events to tackle this question.
Science Agora is one of the largest science events in Japan. First held in 2006, it draws members of the general public as well as leading researchers in various fields. “It’s a way for children and grownups alike to enjoy science,” explains Yamamoto Sakon, parliamentary vice-minister of education, culture, sports, science, and technology during the most recent event, held in Tokyo in November 2022.
The theme for the seventeenth Science Agora, hosted by the Japan Science and Technology Agency, was “Collaborate, Transcend, Create.” JST president Hashimoto Kazuhito explains the choice: “Today, we understand that diversity drives new discoveries and innovations. That’s why it’s important that science be relevant at all levels of society, from academics to the general public. The goal of Science Agora is to foster an interest in science among everyone, regardless of gender or age.”
Hashimoto sees the event as an important approach to keeping children interested in science. “You’d be hard pressed to find an elementary school student who doesn’t like science,” he declares. “The trick, though, is to keep that fascination going into adulthood.” He touts the hands-on approach of Science Agora. “It gives participants experiences that stay with them.”
Robots to the Rescue
There are different efforts underway at Japanese schools to boost interest in STEAM fields—science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. One approach that is garnering attention is the use of so-called weak robots. Professor Okada Michio of Toyohashi University of Technology, a leader in the field, has spent two decades developing robots that assist children in learning.
Okada admits that the first robot he created, named Muu, was a simple affair that left a lot to be desired in terms of function. However, when he tested it at a kindergarten, the reaction of the children surprised and intrigued him. “It was a huge hit,” he recounts. “Everyone took turns looking after it. The experience showed me that weakness and helplessness can have a positive impact.”
Okada used the idea in designing a robotic trash can that is unable to pick up garbage on its own. “When it comes across a piece of refuse, it asks for help,” Okada explains. It does this by turning toward a nearby person and leaning its body forward. “It’s completely reliant on others to fulfill its one and only task, but this weakness draws out the kindness of the those who interact with it.” He notes the happy looks on the faces of children as proof. “There’s no question it has a positive impact on their wellbeing.”
Okada says that such simple interactions give children a sense of gratification and accomplishment. He points to Talking Bones, an absent-minded robot that his team designed. “It retells folktales but sometimes forgets important words,” he explains. “When this happens, children eagerly lend a hand at helping it remember the missing part.” Okada likens this communication between child and robot to older children taking care of their younger peers. “If the robot simply told the story, children would just sit and listen passively. By eliciting their help, though, it makes for an enriching experience.”
Assisting Children with Disabilities
Okada also sees “weak robots” as having an important role in helping children who have trouble communicating build relationships with others around them. “They can act as a bridge,” he says. “For instance, a child who is on the autism spectrum can have a robot that fits easily inside a shirt pocket read his or her essay about what they did on their summer vacation, something they would struggle to do on their own. The applause they get from their classmates at the end of the presentation will help boost the child’s confidence.”
He notes growing evidence of the effectiveness of robots in the rehabilitation of children with autism and other disabilities. He points to one study in which a pair of autistic children who had never expressed cooperative behavior before managed to raise their hands in sync to provoke a robot to mimic their actions, something that could only be accomplished if they moved in tandem. In another case, a child with Down syndrome played the role of teacher to a robot, instructing it in what the child had learned at school. “The parents couldn’t believe their eyes,” says Okada.
As Japan moves forward, experts are in agreement that fostering an early interest in science is crucial to helping children build a brighter future, and through applying the power of science, realize society where no child is left behind.
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on December 27, 2022. Text by Suzuki Makoto. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. Banner photo: Children play with the robot Muu.)
[© Fuji News Network, Inc. All rights reserved.]