The Shakespeare Challenge: Robots On Stage


pic1By Brad Adams.

Robotics is transforming more and more of what people do and know. Pessimists predict the wholesale evaporation of jobs, manual and mental, and the triumph of an enslaving artificial intelligence. For optimists, robotics is positive disruption, ushering in new forms of human enterprise, creativity and support that they can barely dream of. Who can predict? What is known is that robotics, in all its guises, will remake the world for good and for bad. It is therefore timely that schools create a comprehensive and imaginative curriculum for robotics education, a curriculum in which even Will Shakespeare has a place.

Especially relevant for schools is the burgeoning field of social humanoid robots that are designed to mimic human locomotion and expression, and to interact realistically with humans. But the challenges are dizzying! Getting a robot to move, behave, emote and engage in a passably human way is at once a philosophical quandary and an algorithmic puzzle of the highest order. How robots might learn from their environment is almost overwhelmingly complex. There is even an emerging emphasis on ‘developmental robotics’, which studies the learning path of young children to better model how their robot counterparts might be programmed.

The current ecosystem of humanoid robots (and their immediate kin) is diverse and expanding. At the top end are multi-million dollar celebrity humanoids like Honda’s Asimo; unbelievable engineering feats that solve one problem or another. At the opposite end, garage hobbyists can tinker with cheap but surprisingly sophisticated robot components of all shapes and kinds. It is a middle range of robot technology that is increasingly accessible for educators. In Korea and Japan, the far more advanced robotics industry has produced a series of high-functioning robots for the personal, medical and, increasingly, educational market. (In Korea, robots are being tested as teacher-assistants for English language instruction.) The French company Aldebaran Robotics markets the excellent and commercially successful NAO robot to universities, research labs and now schools, with still smarter and more agile robot siblings in development. Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robotics Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, is about to launch Jibo, a different spin on the humanoid form. It targets personal and family use, but will no doubt cross over to educational purposes very quickly. More specifically aligning with robotics education and curriculum, the Canadian company E-Z Robot has pioneered a suite of robots, including ‘J.D. Humanoid’, with top-drawer capabilities. More and more, humanoid robots are knocking insistently on the doors of classrooms.

The barriers to truly widespread educational use should come down. Cost is the highest wall. While an attention-grabber, the NAO robot costs well above $10,000. That puts it out of the reach of most schools, although it is capturing strong sales in Australia as well as in the US, UK and Europe. On the other hand, the smart technology and positioning of the EZ-robots, including the popular humanoid, keeps their price affordably at the level of a good laptop, making it possible for more schools to purchase multiple units for classroom use. As the technology gets better and cheaper and as the market expands, humanoid robot prices will surely come down. Another barrier is that most of these robots require a lot of technical know-how to operate and maintain. But industry game-changers are creating broadly accessible and user-friendly programming tools and interfaces, so that classroom applications are no longer reliant on the expertise and enthusiasm of just a few teachers. And smart educational companies are now eager and able to provide schools with training, support and curriculum materials.

Schools need to embrace this emerging opportunity. According to experts, classroom work with humanoid robotics gets more students hooked on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and this transformational field in particular. There is a need even now for more robotics engineers, programmers and technicians. But, as Dennis Kambeitz at EZ-Robot puts it, “Educators are overwhelmingly unaware about the impact that robotics will have across all industries. Simply put, people with robotics knowledge will have a strong advantage in the workforce, across all job sectors, and including a number of careers you would not immediately expect.” If these experts are right, ‘robotics literacy’ is another of those essential 21st century skills; and the ability to code has become the newest essential ‘second language’. Hands-on lab work with robots is one of the best ways to acquire and practice those coding skills.

Robots, especially social humanoid robots, naturally appeal to children. Dennis Kambeitz has observed that children always insist on naming their robot, to give it personality and character, and to imbue it with intention and mind. Getting ‘Sam’ to do push-ups, dance a jig, or sing a song is a powerful educational motivator. Students are playfully in Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’, fully immersed in the activity, while they learn a ton of maths or physics.

Fiddling with robots is also intrinsically skill building in other ways. According to Christina Clucas at EDRO, a South African educational robotics company, “Learning robotics also introduces kids to critical reasoning and collaborative work, which they need for their future workplace.” With good pedagogical design and direction, teachers fade into the background, and become shepherds and coaches, not the focus of attention. Building up these collaborative, project-based learning skills and reflexes is an important outcome of robotics education, with humanoid robots as a prime learning tool.

There is another good reason to welcome humanoid robots to the classroom. It is far too early to know for sure, and it would be a subject for some good research, but early and positive interaction with humanoid robots seems especially to spark girls’ interest in STEM subjects and careers. At the very pinnacle of her field, MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal is surely a role model. Of course, girls need to become engaged with the full range of STEM possibilities, not one corner of it. At the same time, there are many boys who would find the world of personal and social robots imaginatively engaging. Positioned well in the curriculum and thoughtfully organised, the use of humanoid robotics in STEM education may well have the potential to uproot some of those persistent gender stereotypes.

It is also time to take these robotic friends on a walk beyond the mathematics classroom or the physics lab. Educators need, more than anything else, to give their students the gift of a rich, open-ended dialogue between the arts and humanities and this radically transformational technology. Who ‘owns’ robotics and for what human ends? What ethical issues are raised by robotics and who decides how robots are used? Are robots mirrors people hold up to themselves? What are robots capable of doing well, but what might robots never be able to do? How can robotics be welcomed as partners on the human journey, but protect people from the risks? According to Dennis Kambeitz, “As society moves to a much more technologically dependent workplace, the arts and humanities will take on increased importance, to preserve the ‘human’ experience.” Along these lines, The Shakespeare Challenge: Robots on Stage is offered as a modest thought-experiment in multi-disciplinary, project-based learning, but one within the capability of even today’s humanoid robots.

The Challenge

A team taking up the Shakespeare Challenge has a goal – to program a humanoid robot (or two or three) to perform, in as convincing a way as possible, a portion of text from a Shakespeare play. The text might be a soliloquy, such as “To be or not to be…”, or more ambitiously, an edited scene with two or three characters. The four or five members of the team should reflect a variety of talents and skills and represent a range of technical, literary and dramatic perspectives. While a team leader might be chosen, the team should reach decisions by working together, listening and building on one another’s contributions.

The movement, gestures, emotional expression and voice of the robots on stage will show that the team understood, explored and used the full scope of the robot’s technical capabilities, and came up with some ingenuous and elegant solutions and applications. The performance will also show that team members agreed on an interpretation of the chosen Shakespearean text and on the dramatic representation of the motivation of the characters in the movement, gestures, emotional expressions and voice of actors on stage. The technical problem solving – what they can make the robot do on stage – and the artistic discovery – what they would like the robot to do on stage – should be creatively intertwined processes, not separate ones. Resources and experts can be consulted for advice. In the final staging, there might be some props and lighting, but if used these should primarily assist the technical delivery of the robot performance. The performance should be live and should also be videotaped.

The proof is in the performance, of course, but team members should keep an account, in writing or on video, of the artistic and technical decisions they made and the reasoning behind them; the challenges and problems that were overcome; the creative and ingenuous solutions they came up with; and the consensus making that got the job done. (Of course, the robot might have something to say about all of this too!)

This project gives students an opportunity to engage in the same technical questions and issues that confound cutting-edge researchers in this world of humanoid robotics. Magically, however, the Shakespeare Challenge also reminds us that a truly creative robotics curriculum is always fundamentally about us.

Previously a teacher and school head and more recently the Executive Director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC), Brad Adams has a strong interest in bridging the divide between the humanities and STEM subjects. He is currently Director of Education at CIRCLE, an executive agency in education that connects to 1700 schools and other organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Asia-Pacific region, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa. He can be contacted via email


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