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Robot teacher captivates the classroom

JAPAN'S robot teacher calls roll, smiles and scolds, drawing laughter from students with her eerily lifelike face. But the developer says it's not about to replace human instructors.

Unlike more mechanical-looking robots, this robot teacher, called Saya, can express six basic emotions - surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness and sadness - because its rubber skin is being pulled with motors and wiring around the eyes and the mouth.

In a demonstration, the robot's mouth popped open, its eyes widened and eyebrows arched to appear surprised. Saya pulled back its lips to smile, and said simple pre-programed phrases such as "Thank you," while its lips moved, to express pleasure.

"Robots that look human tend to be a big hit with young children and the elderly," Hiroshi Kobayashi, Tokyo University of Science professor and Saya's developer, told The Associated Press yesterday. "Children even start crying when they are scolded."

First developed as a receptionist robot in 2004, Saya was tested in a Tokyo classroom earlier this year with a handful of fifth and sixth-graders, although it still can't do much more than call roll and shout orders such as "Be quiet."

The children had great fun, Kobayashi recalled, saying that they were amused when the robot called out their names. Still, it's only remote-controlled by a human watching the interaction through cameras, he said.

Japan and other nations are hopeful robotics will provide a solution for their growing labor shortage problems as populations age. But scientists express concern about using a machine to take care of children and the elderly.

But Kobayashi warns against getting hopes up too high for Saya's possibilities.

"The robot has no intelligence. It has no ability to learn. It has no identity," he said. "It is just a tool."


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