Cat Ears and Robot Friends: What Japan’s Educational Future Could Include


Cat Ears and Robot Friends: What Japan’s Educational Future Could Include

By Tony Wan and Sydney Johnson     Nov 4, 2018

Cat Ears and Robot Friends: What Japan’s Educational Future Could Include
Skyline in Tokyo, Japan

Some of the world’s most beloved inventions—from Cup Noodles and Nintendo to emojis and digital Tamagotchi pets—trace back to savvy Japanese entrepreneurs, who bring fantastical ideas to life, in our pockets and on our store shelves. What happens when that creativity is applied to the classroom?

That overlap between futurism, exuberance and education was on display this week at the Edvation x Summit in Tokyo, where education technology entrepreneurs, educators, students and members of Japan’s Ministry of Education shared their vision of what the future of education might look like in the country that brought us everything from the first camera phone to Hello Kitty.

Education is serious business in Japan. The country regularly ranks among the highest in mathematics, science and reading on international tests like the PISA exam. Yet that comes at a cost: immense academic pressure to do well on exams, which critics believe is a factor that fuels bullying in schools. The 2016 academic year in Japan saw more than 320,000 such cases—more than any year on record for the country, according to The Japan Times.

Some presenters at the Edvation x Summit, however, believe technology could help solve some emotional challenges or even loneliness for students.

At a morning session on Sunday, Kentaro Yoshifuji, CEO of Ory Lab, shared how a robot his company has developed is helping people with disabilities connect with friends, family and teachers when it’s difficult or near impossible for them to be physically present with peers.

Robots don’t generally elicit warm, friendly emotions. But Ory Lab’s bots look more like a cute marshmallow than a droid, or some combination of Pepper and Star Wars’ BB-8. And Ory Lab’s robots are operated by a human—not pre-programmed commands. So, for example, students who are hospitalized and unable to attend school in person can remotely control a robot that is placed in a classroom to communicate with students there.

“Motivation is found through communication with other people,” one user, a friend of Yoshifuji’s who was paralyzed after a traffic accident at age four, said in a video. “When I can’t go outdoors with my wheelchair or I need to stay in bed, I can communicate with society or go to school remotely to go to places with friends and add to the experience.”

For people with severe physical disabilities, Ory Lab has also developed a tool called Orihime eye (Orihimei) which allows people who can only move their eyes and finger tips to communicate via an “eye-gaze input device” that enables letters to be read aloud using a transparent screen. A robot acts as the user’s character, and can react, nod or raise a hand based upon visual cues from the user.

Other tools featured at the conference include Koov, a robotics kit that aim to introduce children to electronics. Qooco, a smartphone app, aims to help users develop fluency in English and Mandarin Chinese.

But front, center and occupying the most space in the demo hall were a group of high-school students, offering samples of tomato juice. The brand, Chariteens was created through the Start-up Student Project, a program at the online Daiichi Gakuin High School that introduces students to the ropes of entrepreneurship and running a business. Proceeds from the sale of tomato juice goes towards supporting education-related charities.

Another student invention on display was a smartphone app that allows users to quickly translate and communicate their food allergies in different languages. This creation traced its origins to Life is Tech, a company that runs after-school and summer camps that teach students digital skills to create games, apps and other multimedia projects.

Also featured were emerging technologies that seem peculiar—but not necessarily practical. NeuroSky, a Silicon Valley-based company with operations across Asia, showed off headsets that measure brain waves through biosensors to gauge a person’s state of attention. The device is attached to a tablet that shows a radar chart illustrating different kinds of brain wave activities, each of which supposedly corresponds to one’s state of focus and attention.

EdSurge has previously reported on the issues about the lack of supporting research behind these kinds of devices, and the privacy risks around how students’ attention and emotional data is gathered, stored and shared.

According to the company’s booth representatives, a handful of schools in China, Malaysia and Finland have started piloting these headsets, which each cost $99. The reps acknowledged the sensitivity around data privacy and security, but said the company has yet to establish formal privacy policies around the biodata.

What captured our attention, though, was an added aesthetic twist on the headsets: cat ears. A modified version of these headsets included fuzzy feline ears, which perk up when a student is at full attention, and fall flat when they’re not.

Cat ear headsets by Neurosky aim to track student brainwave data, but lack privacy policies for sensitive student data. (Photo Credit: Tony Wan)

It’s unlikely that the modification will assuage concerns over privacy and practicality anytime soon. (There’s also the question: Does it take a $99 device for teachers to know whether a student is engaged or not?) But as biosensors become more commonplace in consumer technologies like smartwatches, entrepreneurs may continue trying to adapt them for educational purposes.

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine some students liking the idea of wearing cute cat ears in class. It’s an image that seems whimsical, impractical but not entirely implausible. And perhaps that makes it all the more important to watch.

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