What if children taught robots? This is the challenge of the European project ANIMATAS launched in January 2018 by Mohamed Chetouani, professor of social robotics at the Institute of Intelligent Systems and Robotics (ISIR). There are approximately 40 collaborators worldwide, including Raja Chatila, an expert in human-machine interaction ethics and Catherine Pelachaud, specialist in interaction with virtual agents. The project is looking to understand how robots with skills can be used in school to assist educational teams.
Funded for a four-year period by the EU's Horizon 2020 Framework Program, ANIMATAS is the third Marie Skłodowska-Curie project - Innovation Training Network run by Sorbonne University.
Why bring robots into schools?
Science fiction fans say that robots will someday replace teachers in their classrooms. The ANIMATAS project takes the opposite approach to this fantasy. In this case, the robot is not the teacher, but the pupil.
"We chose to change the paradigm, this time asking the children to teach the robots," says Mohamed Chetouani.
Why is the situation flipped? Because learning by teaching allows children to gather together their knowledge to transmit it to the machine. The children become more active in their learning and have direct feedback on how complete their knowledge is. Thanks to the robot's answers, they can evaluate their ability to explain a task or acquired skills.
The robot functions like a microscope in the classroom, measuring social interactions through sensors and cameras. This "behavioral imagery" brings a new source of information to the teacher, making it possible to adjust the reactions of the robot or virtual agent according to the context and needs of each student.
The robot or virtual agent can also adapt during an exercise. When it sees, for example, that the child is having difficulties, it can immediately propose a simpler exercise. From the analysis of the behavior transmitted by the robot or the virtual agent, the teacher can adapt to each child by providing, between sessions, personalized indications to the machine.
ANIMATAS, a multidisciplinary and international research project
In order to develop computer models that will equip robots and virtual agents with social skills within the school, researchers are working on new learning mechanisms by observing how children learn from robots and how robots learn with children. They are also looking at the appearance of the robot or virtual agent and the behavior that the machine should adopt by analyzing the perception of users.
"With approximately 40 employees, our goal is to see how to use robots or virtual agents intelligently in educational tasks," says Mohamed Chetouani.
Researchers create achievable tasks in interaction with robots before transcribing them in the form of algorithms.
"Everyone will enrich the task, some work on the proactivity 1 of the robot, others on how to keep in contact with the child during the interaction, others develop group tasks" explains the coordinator of the project.
Researchers propose a variety of exercises that are implemented by robots: to write, to make certain gestures, to know how to present oneself or make a presentation, to learn to solve problems, even to study basic physics.
"We are closely following the latest work in the neuroscience of education that advocates, for example, alternating the mode where the children acquires knowledge with a mode where they test and restore this knowledge," said Mohamed Chetouani.
Currently in the design phase, researchers will begin the experimentation phase of these educational tasks next spring in Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and French primary schools. They can then further develop the tasks or create new ones, according to the needs and the teachers' feedback.
The project also has an ethical aspect. In addition to scientific guidance and training, the project is based on ethical advice that ensures compliance with European regulations in terms of methodological and experimental precautions.
"The role of robots in school raises important ethical questions that are addressed very early and in a multidisciplinary way by all researchers in the design of the project," says Mohamed Chetouani.
In this perspective, the ANIMATAS project finances a thesis codirected by Raja Chatila on the ethical issues of robotics in the sphere of education.
A Marie Skłodowska-Curie program to train tomorrow's researchers
Through the competitive and prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Program - Innovation Training Network (with only a 7% success rate), ANIMATAS also trains a new generation of young researchers in the emerging field of social robotics for education.
At the heart of the project, 15 PhD students from different disciplines and countries work hand in hand on this project. They pool their skills in engineering, social robotics, virtual agent development, psychology or education science to understand how to use robots or virtual agents intelligently in education.
Within an international network of universities, research institutes and high-level industrial research partners, in 8 different countries, the PhD students benefit from a unique doctoral training program covering scientific, technical and communication aspects.
Each PhD student has the opportunity to spend several months at different partner sites in France or abroad to acquire the complementary knowledge, training or data sets needed to advance on their theme.
By going abroad, supervising trainees, going into companies, participating in the organization of events or training actions, "they acquire excellent skills in research and training, but also develop the complementary skills needed for their future careers in the public or private sector," adds Mohamed Chetouani.
 Proactivity is the fact that the robot does not just perform the task, but asks the student how to do it.