In Korean preschools, toddlers are playing with a friendly, somewhat chubby teacher. The teacher instructs, sings with them and takes pictures of the kids’ pursuits.
But this is not your typical teacher. “700 Korean preschools now use our iRobiQ robot,” boasts Kyung Chul Shin, CEO of Korean robot-maker Yujin Robot. “Of course, human teachers have better interactions with children than do robots, but robots help the teachers do more. In rural areas with a shortage of teachers, this is particularly important.”
Chinese and Taiwanese preschools also use iRobiQ, and a French company has licensed it, too. Soon Yujin Robot will launch a model that will teach children English. “In the future, our robots will have emotions, so the children will feel they’re communicating with it,” says Shin.
At home, iRobiQ doubles as a butler. He has plenty of company: More than four million robots now vacuum and scrub floors in people’s homes. “We’ve had tremendous progress in robot technology,” says Henrik Christensen, a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech.
“Today robots are able to complete a wide range of everyday tasks. They can pick up things from the floor, bring your dishes away and bring you your medicine,” Christensen adds. His team has designed several such robots, including one that makes and serves coffee. Japanese researchers recently unveiled a hair-washing robot.
As the world’s population ages, the need for home assistance — and therefore robots — is poised for a boom. “Dogs and trained monkeys can help the elderly, but they’re expensive and don’t last very long,” Christensen notes. “Nurses can help people get dressed, but you won’t have a nurse who brings you a glass of water whenever you’re thirsty.”
Today’s robots recognize faces, speak several languages and have a long battery life. Pretty soon, harried office workers will be able tell a robot to clean their house. They can call the robot to see if they turned off the coffeemaker or to instruct him to make sure the kids are doing their homework. But a recent survey revealed which robot people most want: one that irons.