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Japan develops English-teaching robots

A Japanese company has developed the world's first artificial intelligence "chat robots" to teach English.



SpeakGlobal's online 'robots' -- which appear as male or female manga-style characters -- look and make gestures that are identical to that of a human, speak aloud and can hold an interactive conversation with the student.

Developed primarily for the domestic market for people who want to learn to speak English, the technology can be adapted for any language around the world -- although humans in the teaching profession may be less than delighted at the prospect.

"While many English conversation schools and online schools exist, some simply cannot afford this luxury," the Kobe-based company said. "As well, the actual speaking time in such lessons is limited, to average about 10 minutes per one-hour session. In the case of beginner-level learners, it is considerably less."

The English language is an important part of the school curriculum in Japan and is obligatory for six years in the public school system. But the number of Japanese who say they are actually comfortable conversing in English is very low, due in part to the focus on mastering reading and grammar in school and the lack of opportunities to practice speaking with native-English speakers.

The result was the sudden growth in private language schools in the 1980s and 1990s, although Japan's economic problems in recent years have seen many of those companies go under.

SpeakGlobal's system, in place since late August, gives one-on-one spoken language instruction whenever the student requires for a fee that the company says is modest.

Access to one of the teacher robots starts at $15 per month, instead of the more usual fee of $300 a month for time with a human teacher at a private school.

Students are able to converse with their android teacher by speaking into a microphone that uses Dragon Naturally Speaking, recognized as one of the most advanced speech-recognition technology in the world.

"With a lineup of various artificial intelligence char robots, nearly any student learning English can find a suitable teacher to converse with at home, work on in school, 24/7," the company said.

"This is a turning point in the way English speaking is taught and practiced in Japan, Asia and around the world."

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