Do young learners prefer a robot or human teacher?

(Last Updated On: September 4, 2023)

Researchers tested pre-schoolers to see whether robots could be better teachers than real people. The Canadian study used both a human speaker and a robot to see if they deemed similarity more important than competency when choosing which source to trust and learn from.

Human or robot? According to a study at Concordia University in Montreal the preference for who does the teaching largely depends on a learner’s age.


The research compared two groups of preschoolers: one of three-year-olds, the other of five-year-olds. The children participated in Zoom meetings featuring a video of a young woman and a small robot with humanoid characteristics (head, face, torso, arms and legs) called Nao sitting side by side. Between them were familiar objects that the robot would label correctly while the human would label them incorrectly, like referring to a car as a book, a ball as a shoe and a cup as a dog.

Unfamiliar items

Next, the two groups of children were presented with unfamiliar items: the top of a turkey baster, a roll of twine and a silicone muffin container. Both the robot and the human used different nonsense terms like ‘mido’, ‘toma’ and ‘fep’ to label the objects. The children were then asked what the object was called, endorsing either the label offered by the robot or by the human.

While the three-year-olds showed no preference, the five-year-olds were much more likely to state the term provided by the robot than the human.

Choosing competency

“We can see that by age five, children are choosing to learn from a competent teacher over someone who is more familiar to them, even if the competent teacher is a robot,” said the paper’s lead author, Anna-Elisabeth Baumann.

The experiments were repeated with new groups, replacing the humanoid Nao with a small truck-shaped robot called Cozmo. The results resembled those observed with the human-like robot, suggesting that the robot’s morphology does not affect the children’s selective trust strategies.

Along with the labelling task, a naive biology task was administered. The children were asked if biological organs or mechanical gears formed the internal parts of unfamiliar animals and robots. The three-year-olds appeared confused, assigning both biological and mechanical internal parts to the robots. However, the five-year-olds were much more likely to indicate that only mechanical parts belonged inside the robots.

“This data tells us that the children will choose to learn from a robot even though they know it is not like them,” said Baumann. “They know that the robot is mechanical.”

Talk, think and feel

While there has been a substantial amount of literature on the benefits of using robots as teaching aides for children, the researchers note that most studies focus on a single robot informant or two robots pitted against each other. This study uses both a human speaker and a robot to see if children deem social affiliation and similarity more important than competency when choosing which source to trust and learn from.

“Older preschoolers know that robots have mechanical insides, but they still anthropomorphise them. Like adults, these children attribute certain human-like qualities to robots, such as the ability to talk, think and feel,” added co-researcher Elizabeth Goldman.

“It is important to emphasise that we see robots as tools to study how children can learn from both human and non-human agents. As technology use increases, and as children interact with technological devices more, it is important for us to understand how technology can be a tool to help facilitate their learning.”

Source: Cognition and Language Development Lab, Concordia University

INTERFACE September 2023

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