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Robot Teachers

Companion robots are making their way into homes and classrooms.

Meet Miko, a toy-like robot barely seven inches tall. Look past its appearance and what you get is a well-read, sprightly companion - with a screen as its face and LEDs as its hands - who is constantly watching your back, making it ideal for children above five years. From wishing 'good morning' to inculcating healthy eating habits to imparting general knowledge, Miko has got it all covered.

Companion robots have been particularly useful for the elderly and children with special needs. Now, technology giants and start-ups are developing robots that appeal to all. Ones that can serve as companions and teachers for children are gaining popularity.

These robots have been designed to converse with kids, satiate their curiosity, entertain them, read out stories, keep an eye on them, teach them and do most things a parent would. Miko's Indian manufacturer, Emotix, claims that it has over a million topics (and counting) to talk about. Using a dashboard, parents can control topics that can be discussed and those that are out of bounds.

Smart speakers of today can carry out most of these tasks; but the 'cuteness' factor of these robots and their ability to follow people around are winning the hearts of parents and kids alike. Some of these robots with screens and a human-like voice have cameras embedded in them, along with intelligent hubs to connect and control home appliances. With an artificial intelligence software/application at the core, these robots understand, learn and evolve with usage.

India is yet to see the arrival of such robots. The year-old Miko, priced at Rs 19,000, while good, falls short in comparison with the advanced robots available abroad.

Asus Zenbo, priced at $599, is an adorable looking smart companion launched in 2016. It entertains kids with interactive stories and games, helping cultivate creativity and logical thinking. The remote-controlled camera lets parents keep a close watch on the kids. Zenbo has been programmed to capture pictures of your child's special moments. In case of an emergency, Zenbo is smart enough to notify family members. Then there is Jibo, a stout one-eyed robot, which is a recent addition priced at $899. This 'social robot for the home' has a touchscreen face. It uses facial recognition to remember every member of the family and helps them with their respective needs.

There are a number of robot companions that do not cost a fortune, but can handle select chores. For instance, the Luka owl-themed robot, priced at $150, is adept at reading bedtime stories to kids, in the age group of two to eight, and encourages them to read by themselves. Panasonic is developing a ball-shaped robot, Cocotto, which will be an educational companion and babysitter capable of displaying emotions through LEDs. It will encourage kids to move, talk and connect.

Companion robots are making their way into classrooms, too. They help by assisting teachers and making interactions with children more interactive - read out stories to kids and ask follow-up questions. iPal is one such humanoid robot, 3.5 feet tall, employed in kindergarten schools in China. It compliments kids for the correct answers and even dances with them. At a primary school in Finland, Elias the robot is the new language teacher. Elias understands and speaks 23 languages, and is a patient teacher.

While these robots cannot, (and should not, ideally) make the role of parents and teachers dispensable, it can add excitement to a mundane classroom and make learning more stimulating. While at a nascent stage currently, P&S Market Research expects the global personal robot market to grow at a CAGR of 37.8 per cent during 2016-2022. Companion and assistant robots are expected to make significant strides during this time.