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School District Deploys Classroom Robots

'What kid doesn’t want to play with a robot?'

On the long list of things that could quickly turn unnerving with the advent of artificial intelligence, the classroom likely ranks pretty high.

But at a preschool outside Boston, officials hope a robot could be a lifeline for some students.

The Boston Globe chronicled the experience of Shawsheen Preschool in Andover, Massachusetts, the first school in the state to try robot-assisted instruction.

In late November, the school introduced “Kebbi,” a small, white “educational robot” developed by Movia Robotics of Bristol, Connecticut. The robots are part of a pilot project aimed at helping children on the autism spectrum with communication and attention skills.

Studies suggest that social robots could increase autistic students’ academic readiness, and their benefits could extend to those with dyslexia, Down syndrome, or ADHD.

Kebbi, complete with moveable arms and blue facial features, is approximately 80% autonomous, taking some cues from classroom teachers but reacting to students largely on its own, from moving lessons along to offering encouragement to alleviating frustration.

Kebbi is one of several robots made by Movia, which operates in dozens of New England schools and offers more than 200 lessons. Kebbi came with a price tag of $5,000 for the year, and dozens of households have also added them in their homes for an initial monthly fee of nearly $200.

Anecdotally, the initial returns on Kebbi are promising at Shawsheen. The robot has worked with nearly two dozen students, many of whom think of Kebbi as a friend.

Although parents could understandably be wary of their kids interacting with even more electronics, Kebbi could serve as yet another example of automation helping, rather than threatening, human workers. Far from replacing teachers, social robots could instead give them a vital tool to work with vulnerable children.

After all, Andover’s assistant superintendent told the Globe, “What kid doesn’t want to play with a robot?”

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