Robots for children with intellectual disablities

To read on The Guardian:

Engineers develop educational robot for children with learning difficulties

Note: Learning disability in UK is the same thing than intellectual disability elsewhere.

Korean company SK Telecom has taken corporate social responsibility into the future with hi-tech strategy to help students


Will robotics play an important role in future sustainability programmes? Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Korea’s rigorous and demanding education system was one factor behind the country’s stunning economic growth during the late 20th century.

Now Korea is a global leader in science, information and communications technology (ICT) and engineering. Yet despite the government’s keen focus on education and an increase in spending on special education in recent years, many of the country’s special needs children still fall through the cracks. But advances in technology offer new opportunities to change the lives of children who struggle with learning disabilities.

SK Telecom has partnered with the Korean government and academics to explore new ways of supplementing the work of special education teachers . Last November, SK opened the « classroom of possibilities » at a special needs school in Seoul, with the aim of creating new learning tools for children with developmental disabilities who do not respond to traditional curricula.

In a departure from the typical corporate social responsibility programme of sending employee volunteers to help in the classroom, SK organised a team of engineers to develop and pilot a smart robot – Albert – equipped with educational software to help children with learning disabilities. This robot, which has a smartphone loaded with specially designed software as its brain, helped students learn life skills, improve their communication and perform better in the classroom.

SK’s engineers worked with educators to design Albert to complement traditional educational materials. SK’s Irene Kim explained that the smart robot will never oust human teachers, but instead will replace traditional tools such as paper and books. Teachers taught students how to interact with the robot as they incorporated new IT into the classroom. According to Kim: « We tried to make it easier for these students to stand on their own two feet by allowing them to get familiar with real-life activities through the smart robot’s simulated programmes. »

Children with intellectual disabilities often struggle with traditional educational tools, but during last year’s pilot, both teachers and SK employees working on this project found children with conditions such as autism responded positively to Albert. The robot’s movements and interactions not only sparked students’ interest, but they learned more effectively and developed better situation awareness through physical activities and touch-and-feel exercises. As a result, SK continues to have conversations with education professionals about how robots such as Albert can integrate with other education initiatives.

SK managed the entire rollout of this smart robot pilot and expects to include new partners as the programme expands. For now, SK employees take charge of the maintenance and repair of the robots, and create content tailored to students’ needs. And in a move to both improve the software and further motivate employees, SK offered a prize to the developer team which designed the best application for school classrooms.

The « classroom of possibilities » also has the potential to benefit small software developers in Korea. SK and its partners will extend support to technology firms with cutting-edge ideas, but which lack resources and connections to partner with Korean conglomerates, such as SK.

Meanwhile Korea’s ministry of education and science technology is interested in expanding the pilot. Once the ministry determines how these robots can be most effective in classrooms across the country, officials will deliver a plan to distribute robots where they are most needed. SK also partners with Utah State University and is testing another robot, Atti, for future applications in classrooms.

According to Kim, SK launched this programme for two main reasons. Traditional one-way communication with customers via TV or radio advertisement is no longer the most effective messaging tool with its customers in the age of social media and multiple media channels. Instead, SK is shifting its strategy to show customers the company’s vision, the role it can have in their daily lives, and how ICT can enrich and improve the lives of citizens who could use a lift in Korea’s competitive society.

The scheme is also a step beyond traditional CSR programmes such as volunteering and philanthropy. SK aims to create shared value among stakeholders. « Our goal is to seek ways to bring mutual benefits, » explained Kim, « through measures that help empower and develop the ability of the socially underprivileged. »

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