"Hello, Mr. Dunavin. My name is Nao. I am a humanoid robot. I want to welcome you to Amity Middle School. I hope you enjoy your visit."
Nao seems to stare up at me with glowing eyes, then takes a seat on the floor of Bill Dahn's eighth-grade robotics classroom. His limbs move in a way that is disconcertingly human -- but strangely comfortable. [See the video above to see what I mean.]
Nao just came to the school district, a guest of Dahn and Amity Middle School-Bethany teacher Kevin Berean. The creation of a French robotics company, Nao has been around the world, and those limber limbs have made him famous. (His dance routine in China and stand-up comedy routine at a TED conference drew headlines.)
Now in its third year, the middle school robotics program serves as a chance for students to get exposed to 21st-century science and prepare for the more intensive science research program at Amity High School. ()
"The Sky's the Limit"
Starting this year, the robotics program introduces an after-school club where tech-loving students can get to know Nao and maybe even get the chance to do some serious research of their own -- finding interesting uses for the easily programmable robot.
"Bill and I are trying something unique that's going to really push the kids to challenge themselves," says Berean. "The sky's the limit for research ... Anything their creative minds could think of, I think it could be done. Last year, my students threw out having the robot as a teaching assistant. And I said, "Maybe we'll have the robot teach math lessons. Or have some interactive poetry."
Middle schoolers who gravitate toward the STEM area of curriculum -- Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics -- are the target audience for Amity's new robotics venture.
"It's a way for us to take that STEM initiative," says Dahn, "and offer a program that could be a feeder for the science research program [at the high school,] and spark some kids' interest in science, engineering and technology."
Dahn and Berean just announced the after-school program to kids this week -- that's why Nao is visiting classrooms. They'll have to go through a recommendation process first, but Dahn says interest is high.
"Anything having to do with technology at this age group is exciting," says Dahn. "They love it."
Can You Be Friends with a Robot?
They may not realize it, but the 8th-graders who interact with Nao (and will eventually program him) are getting their first exposure to the field of social robotics, a discipline that blurs the lines between humans and "artificial intelligence."
"I view it as the study of how we as humans interact with robots," says Berean. "It's still developing and growing. It's multi-layered, but it's really asking the questions, can we model human behavior by computing it in robots? Can we learn from robots about the social behavior in the roles we have as humans?"
Scientists who focus on artificial intelligence, Berean says, often wonder if robots can be programmed to look and act more like humans. He says Nao isn't quite as human as some robots he's seen on the vanguard of the field.
"I suspect it was designed the way it was for a reason. It doesn't cross that boundary. It doesn't scare the kids."
In fact, Berean says, the more they get to know Nao, the more he could help them in life.
"I don't know how many middle schools are doing this," says Berean. "I'm not aware of any, but there could be ... It's going to help the kids develop those 21st century skills."