How children get started in the world of robotics and artificial intelligence
We can’t predict the future, but we can try to anticipate it based on some trends we see today. Lately, the use of both robotics and artificial intelligence in the field of employment has seen increasing debate. The evidence is clear that both industries will be crucial in the future of the job market, and even such prestigious institutions as the World Economic Forum and the Institute for the Future have said so in different reports.
According to their forecasts, jobs in future will require more specialised knowledge of robotics and AI, and those who have it will find it much easier to stand out in the job market. That is why in this article our colleague Emilio Granell is going to tell us his experience with his own son and how we can get children started in the world of technology in order to help them develop the skills that will be essential when they grow up.
What are the key skills that workers must have in future?
Many of the most highly valued key skills are directly or indirectly related to the sphere of technology. We could mention some that are found in different articles such as in the Top Universities journal and the We Forum website, for example: cognitive flexibility, digital literacy, computational thinking, judgement and decision-making, emotional and social intelligence, and having a creative, innovative imagination. Nor can we forget critical thinking, which is the ability to analyse and evaluate information with the intention of clarifying the truth of that information while avoiding possible external bias.
All of these skills are very important (not just for the world of employment) and can be worked on with children from a very small age. Of course, not everybody has the same skills or interests. Hence, just as it is not necessary for everybody to learn to play a musical instrument or paint pictures, nor is it necessary for all children to be experts in technological subjects like computer science, robotics or artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, these will play a relevant role in the coming years and we need to become familiar with them.
So, what can parents do to develop these skills in our children? Well, the first step is to see if they are actually interested in this field. We should never force them to do something they don’t want to. In my case, at three years of age my child asked if he could help me in my work, so what I’m about to say to you is from my own personal experience.
“Dad, let’s make a robot!”
The first thing I did when my son, at three years of age, began to tell me he wanted to work with me and to program robots, was to salvage an an old laptop computer that I had around the house. That laptop, while not very powerful, works well with Debian and because it has an 11-inch screen it’s the perfect size for small children to handle.
That said, my son was three years old so he couldn’t read! What could such a small child do with a computer with no touch screen? Well, as demonstrated by Sugata Mitra, what children generally do with anything you leave with them: they touch everything and learn how it works.
Getting a child started with technology, step-by-step
The first app I installed was GCompris, which is a very comprehensive educational suite, not just in terms of the variety of subjects studied: language, maths, electronics, geography and of course computers, but also in terms of the levels of difficulty. For me, it was fascinating to see how he learned to use the computer all by himself with the keyboard, the mouse and the touchpad, at the same time as he was learning the alphabet, numbers, his first notions of Boolean algebra with exercises on logic gates, and even the water cycle and how to generate renewable energy.
What’s more, by letting him use the computer with no supervision, he learned to handle the desktop display and the settings of the apps that he found interesting. But I’m not going to lie: they were nearly all games.
Didn’t we say that he wanted to program robots? Well, yes, so the next thing I acquired to teach him to program robots was just that: a robot. After a lot of searching, I decided on Zowi, a small robot designed precisely to help with technological education. This robot can be programmed using a graphic programming language by blocks.
3. Crocro adventure
In order to create a program by programming in blocks, a series of pieces must be connected to make up a sequence of steps or instructions for the robot to follow. There are other options to teach them these basic concepts of programming and algorithms such as games like Crocro Adventure, where small children have to help a little crocodile to find food by showing it a sequence of steps it has to follow to achieve it.
4. Super Doc
Nevertheless, my preferred one is Super Doc. The best advantage I found with Super Doc is that children can program it without the need for a computer (and of course without adult supervision) by using buttons on its head. Super Doc has different levels of difficulty associated with different characters, such as a dragon, a princess and a wizard. There is a board they move across to pick up objects according to the instructions they are given.
5. Future geniuses
Children’s curiosity is infinite, and the next question was: how do robots decide what to do? In my case, I found a book about robotics and artificial intelligence written precisely with small children in mind. Without going into technical details, the important thing is that they should understand the basic concepts about sensors, actuators and the processor, and that by using techniques of artificial intelligence such as neural networks, we can teach robots to take decisions so as to act according to what their sensors perceive.
6. BQ Zum Kit Junior
But of course, that led to new questions: how do robots sense and do things? To answer these questions, I found this kit of robotics designed for small children. With this, we can create a robot prototype connected to the sensors and actuators we want at all times, such as wheels and LEDs, and lighting or temperature sensors. There is also a version for teenagers.
To sum up, there are a multitude of possibilities for children with an interest to begin to acquire technological skills from a very early age. Many of them use free software and freeware, and as for the Super Doc hardware, you can buy it from €35.
Emilio Granell, Machine Learning Researcher at Sciling and father of future genius.