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Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 16:05 GMT


Meet Steve and Adele, the robot teachers

The University of Southern California is developing the robots

It might not be an immediate answer to the recruitment crisis in teaching, but researchers in the United States have produced prototypes of robot teachers.

Steve and Adele, robots built by researchers at the University of Southern California, have been developed to answer questions, offer explanations and give demonstrations to their human pupils.

But instead of the science fiction image of lumbering metallic figures, this new generation of robot only exists in virtual reality software.

Steve, described by his designers as "completely autonomous in a highly complex environment", comes to life when his pupils put on a virtual reality helmet and gloves.

[ image: Adele teaches medical students how to make a diagnosis]
Adele teaches medical students how to make a diagnosis
The helmet includes a screen which allows the learner to see into a three-dimensional, computer-generated world, and the gloves include sensors which allow Steve's pupils to move and 'hold' items in this virtual environment.

The teaching robots, which the university says never get tired and never make mistakes, are part of a project providing for the training needs of the United States Navy.

For example, Steve can show a group of users how to perform tasks in an engine room, showing what should be done and then giving instructions and answering questions from his students as they attempt to copy the robot figure.

Another of the university's teaching developments is Adele, an animated figure who appears as part of an online computer software package to train medical students.

If students make a mistake, Adele appears on-screen to give them a correct alternative. The virtual teacher also gives students exercises based on real cases, on which the trainee doctors can practise their responses.

The director of the university's Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education, Lewis Johnson, says that "teachers are most effective when they work one-to-one with students, but human teachers can't work one-to-one with everyone in the class at once. Software agents can".

The next step for research will be in software that can interpret facial expressions, so that teaching robots can recognise their pupils' responses and react appropriately.

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