mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Welcome Our New Robot Classmates


At Via Meadia, we’ve long been excited about the possibilities for live video software to fundamentally alter the way we live our lives. The spread of such software enables everything from MOOCs, which allow thousands of students to view lectures simultaneously all over the world, to telecommuting, which allows people to work remotely and avoid the morning commute. But a number of schools have found one use we hadn’t thought of yet—using teleconferencing robots to help convalescing children attend school remotely while bedridden.

The New York Times reports on the spread of VGo, a wheeled robot with a camera and video screen, that allows a user to drive around and interact with others remotely. The robot was initially designed to allow doctors to treat patients from afar, but it is increasingly being used in schools to allow students to attend class while recovering from illness. Students sit in bed and control the robot’s motions through the hallways, using live video to participate in class discussions and social activities. Despite ocasional issues with poor internet connections, the robot has been a stunning success—fellow students and teachers have quickly accepted the robot into the classroom and treat it more or less like they would another student. And this may be only one small part of what the robot is capable of:

Dr. Mataric’s research focuses on using robots to teach social cues to children withautism. Children adapt far more quickly to the technology than adults and treat the machine like another classmate, she says. During a fire drill at one Texas school, students were so worried about the VGo that they insisted on escorting it out of the building to safety. […]

For students like Connor Flanagan, 14, of Tyngsborough, Mass., the main benefit has been social interaction. He does not go to school because of a rare lung condition, but he has stayed in touch with friends while awaiting a transplant.

“He walks down the hallway kind of like everybody else,” said his mother, Jennifer Flanagan. “The kids — aside the fact that it was a robot — they treated him like Connor. He’d roll through the room, and you’d hear ‘Hey, Connor. Hi, Connor.’ ”

Of course, at $6 thousand, plus regular maintenance costs, the robots are still prohibitively expensive for most schools. But as one professor noted, they are liable to become cheaper as time goes on and the technology becomes more widely available.

This story is another reminder of technology’s power to change lives, allow the disabled and the elderly to participate more fully in society. Increasingly, new solutions like this are going to open up the workplace as well, allowing mothers to work from home (or to interact with their kids from work), opening more economic opportunity to the disabled and allowing older people to keep working longer even as their bodies become weaker.

The possibilities are endless, and American schools, companies and other institutions need to seize the opportunity.

Features Icon
show comments
© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service