Imagine a time when robots will rub shoulders with our children in the classroom. Well, that time has come. Tommy is the first humanoid to make it to Malta – one of three social robots brought over by the Centre for Literacy at the University of Malta as part of a research and development project driven by Professor Charles L. Mifsud.

Tommy is a learning companion who will prompt children to respond verbally and emotionally in a learning situation. Through child-robot interaction, children will learn how to communicate better. They will also learn a myriad of social skills. Not only will they interact with Tommy, but they will also be able to programme him and train him to remember and learn things over time. Tommy will also prompt them to have thoughtful conversations between themselves.

The exceptional value that this project will reap is in the area of learning challenges, with children on the autism spectrum. You see, Tommy’s facial expressions and tone of voice are totally non-judgemental. He is also patient – the perfect learning companion for children who are finding it hard to make friends and integrate.

Three educational robots will be deployed to determine how verbal and multimodal interaction takes place between humans and robots, the children’s responses and what kind of problem-solving measures they will take. The aim is to specifically assist seven to 10-year old children with learning challenges. The study will test child engagement, language development, interaction and communication levels and the gaining of literacy and life skills.

It was a pleasure to chat at length with Professor Mifsud whose extensive experience in the application of technology in education and his passion for the field of literacy has informed many significant projects to date. He explained to me how robotic systems targeting people on the autism spectrum, especially children, are a growing subfield of social robotics and human-robot interaction research. He is excited to be contributing towards the international body of knowledge that exists on the use of social robots to promote communication and learning and help develop adequate responses to the learning needs of diverse children.

Residency Malta Agency is investing €85,000 over two years in this project called EduRoboKids. This is part of our commitment to divest funds garnered from our operations to attract foreign investment in lieu of permanent residency for fit-and-proper families hailing from third countries. This is perhaps one of the more tangible corporate responsibility commitments that people can identify and warm up to. It is heartwarming to know that our efforts on an economic level are also leaving an impact in the social realm, specifically on our children.

The project work will be implemented in three phases which will include the testing of solutions, digital and connectivity support, educator training and the production of training materials. This will be followed by piloting the project with a number of children, parents and educators.

There is no better investment than in the education of our children, who will become the citizens of tomorrow. My two sons are growing up fast. I know now, more than ever, that their future in learning is indeed bright.

Robots in the classroom? No longer science fiction!

Charles Mizzi, Chief Executive Officer, Residency Malta Agency

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