Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Robot keeps students' attention by mind-reading

Almost everyone will agree that school is not always interesting, yet education is of the utmost importance. Teachers require their students' attention, but it is impossible to be sure whether someone is actually listening, or whether his or her thoughts are drifting on to other topics. A robot, combined with a brain scanner, might be a solution: scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a system that detects whether a student is paying attention to the lesson, which ought to aid in memorizing what is being taught in class.

A scanner that measures brain activity was used to assess the participants' attention level. That means they had to put some sort of helmet on their head, which, in the study, was connected to a robot. Brain activity data was sent in real time, allowing the 'teacher' to assess quickly whether a student's thoughts were drifting away. Data was acquired using a simple EEG, or electroencephalography.

A robot of the Wakamaru type was programmed to read a story to a group of participants, which at the same time was given live information about the 'brain status' of the participants. While reading, the robot had several audiovisual cues at his disposal to reclaim attention, including raising his voice or making arm gestures. Every time the EEG signal dipped below a certain threshold, the robot would give its cues, to prevent thoughts from wandering off.
Two other groups were formed in which the robot did either not give any cues, or give them at random. When comparing the data with these two control groups, the scientists found that giving audiovisual cues to students with decreased attention helped retention of the story: a questionnaire which was given at the end of the session revealed that students receiving timely cues when their brains had wandered off remembered much more about the story they were told.

According to the scientists, their system may help teachers to uncover when students are no longer paying attention to what they are saying. Providing timely cues to students that find their brains wandering off, which basically happens to everyone who is forced to listen to a story for a set amount of time, may make studying more effective. Naturally, it is questionable whether being able to read minds of students in a class room is desirable. One could say that, while presence is mandatory, students should at least have 'freedom of thought' during class. Nevertheless, it is an interesting attempt to maximize education efficiency. 

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