The January 2015 issue of National Geographic, “The First American,” has some articles well worth a read. Two sections of the magazine are particularly relevant to Robot Futures. The first is some optimistic evidence for humanity: The First Year by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, photographed by my friend Lynn Johnson of Pittsburgh. This article talks about how incredibly important social-emotional development during the first four years of life is to overall brain and emotional development well into adulthood- a lesson we all need to understand. But a very interesting experiment in the middle of the article cuts at just how raw human interaction may really be different from telepresence and technology-enhanced learning (think computer-based tutors). The authors describe a study to understand how babies learn about the sounds (phonemes) that make up their home language. The researchers exposed babies from English-speaking families to Mandarin Chinese sounds- and they did this in three distinct ways: (1) interact with Mandarin-speaking tutors; (2) watch the tutors by video presentation; (3) listen to the audio track only of the tutor video.
The children were tested after twelve such learning sessions to see how many Mandarin phonemes they could detect and distinguish. Group (1) were able to discriminate sounds as well as native Chinese listeners. Here’s the interesting part: groups (2) and (3) both showed zero learning. Zero.
The research is then quoted saying “We were blown away….It changed our fundamental thinking about the brain.”
I like the study because it refocuses us on understanding just how social we creature are. We can create robotic systems that have computational chops; but that does not mean that the computational can, for instance, teach our children the way human, social teachers can. We still have an advantage over video and audio, at least for the time being.