February 19, 2004


She might not be paid, but Carnegie Mellon University's newest staff member does all that a typical receptionist should: gives directions, answers the phone even gossips about her boss.

'Valerie' is considered the world's first robot receptionist with a personality, university officials said Wednesday. The blonde roboceptionist interacts with people by talking about her boss, her psychiatrist and her dream of being a lounge star.

-- University Unveils Robot Receptionist

Here's a solution to the "classroom bias" problem:

Replace all human faculty with robots. The machines could be programmed to supply factual information on carefully delimited fields, and would be incapable of introducing material that was not directly related to the subject at hand or of responding to anything but the simplest "yes" or "no" query. Admittedly, students might initially find this a bit frustrating. But they'd soon learn not to ask real questions, which would increase the comfort level of everyone involved. To enhance the learning environment, the robots might be given "personalities" that simulate favourite professorial types: the cranky but lovable old curmudgeon, the high-voltage caffeine-buzzed lecturer, the ironic young hipster who really cares.

As a bonus, this would also solve the academic employment problem. Machines don't get paid, and robots don't know how to unionize. Thus, all faculty would be full-time and available 24/7 (except for routine maintenance breaks), and this at an enormous cost-savings to the university. Every machine would have tenure for life, or at least for the period under manufacturer's warranty.

Granted, this would throw a lot of human faculty out of work. But the "displaced professor" syndome would barely register beyond the Ivy Tower, and there'd be little danger of social unrest or of anything like a new Chartist movement. Does anyone miss the stockingers and weavers who were displaced by industrialization?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 19, 2004 11:23 AM

I think you're onto something here. And it hardly needs saying that bloggers could be replaced with text generators supplied with relevant corpora. It's true that bloggers, not being paid in the first place, would not generate any savings directly, but they could be put to use in other ways.

Posted by: language hat at February 19, 2004 11:42 AM

I have a friend, who after obtaining B.Eng and M.Eng, came to the conclusion that instruction from a Prof. was "a waste of time" because the professor is forced to teach to an group of people and thus students must sit and listen to information they already know. He suggested a "roboprof" that could be available anytime and answer an infinite number of user specified questions. He expanded the idea saying that if all of university was taught like this, it would greatly reduce the cost of a degree and increase accessibility to higher education because we wouldn't have to pay for expensive professors (a single professor program could be sold to all universities) and we wouldn't have to pay for lecture halls and other space. Although I tried to explain to him that, at least outside of engineering, students gain knowledge and experience by working directly with professors and other students by utilizing the tool of discussion to create new ideas, he held his computer-university. shun the idea of classes taught over television, let alone from a computer. I accept that maybe some techincal skill can be taught with only a computer. However, I think the most important thing university has to teach students, especially in science and engineering is ethics and how to relate to humanity. I can't see a computer teaching that.

Posted by: Ben the Geographer at February 19, 2004 01:58 PM

My friend Mr. Swift had a suggestion that the problems of poverty could be solved by selling the children of the poor for food -- I tried repeatedly to explain to him that eating people is repugnant (Steve take note!) and it would never work, but he held fast to his idea regardless.

Posted by: Jeremy Osner at February 19, 2004 02:45 PM

The phone-sex function would have to be disabled for students, but it seems that colleagues could be allowed to log on for that after-hours.

Posted by: zizka / emerson at February 19, 2004 02:47 PM

But Zizka, wouldn't that open a Pandora's Box of issues surrounding all those no-dating/no-sex with students clauses?

Posted by: Chris at February 19, 2004 02:53 PM


I am not sure how far one could get with selling poor children to interested parties. They don't strike me as that tasty. Now the young ones from various rich families, which might have a little more fat on them, could be worth considering.

(Sorry to all who are now grossed out; I just could not resist.)

In my undergraduate days, I would not have been surprised if some of my profs actually were robots. Oh well.

Posted by: DM at February 19, 2004 03:03 PM

Excellent idea, but something like this should be implemented from the top down. Administration should be automated first.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at February 19, 2004 04:46 PM

I think there is an interesting dilemma here. Professors are not just "information delivery systems" but also "content providers" and even "content generators." Moreover, they are (if they're conscious and untenured) self-correcting systems, taking feedback and positive and negative results into account for future iterations.

Some of the self-correction could be handled by market surveys, results analysis (i.e. class evaluations), but it would still require a person expert at the interpretation of those results and competent with the material being presented to make the necessary adjustments.

But the development of content, though it could be centralized (like textbooks, which keep getting cheaper and cheaper.... oops), would still suffer. A significant reduction in the professorial ranks would mean a concommitant (I don't get to use that word much, thanks!) reduction in the production of new knowledge. I'm sure the textbook (and robo-lecture) publishers wouldn't want that: how else would they justify selling costly updates and new editions? If there weren't perishable publishing professors out there doing the work for free, the publishers would have to pay for the production of new knowledge in-house, and I suspect that the extra cost of content production might well outstrip the measly salary/benefits/office space savings.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at February 19, 2004 05:07 PM

Exadtly -- why replace teachers? What every school needs is a robot president programmed to:

1) invite rich alums into his box at the game,
2) reassure parents that their offspring will be looked after with the family-type all-round nurturing guaranteed to keep them 16 for ever,
3) tell faculty that there's no money for pay rises left over after the multi-level car park extension plan, and
4) nod sagely before committee at state legislators' ideas of what a college education should be.

No. 4 would be an optional extra for state schools.

A more expensive model equipped with arguments as to why TAs shouldn't join a union would be available also.

flu in san diego

Posted by: flu in san diego at February 19, 2004 05:09 PM

Oh, sorry about typos and syntax. Have to learn to slow down.

Posted by: flu in san diego at February 19, 2004 05:11 PM

Reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Real Genius -- the one where, the students having given up going to class in favor of leaving tape recorders on their desks, the professor leaves a reel-to-reel tape player on the podium giving his lecture to all the tape recorders!

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 19, 2004 07:23 PM

The truth is, there are some things that need to be said to students over and over, and it'd be great if we could get a robot to do it. Like: your paper needs to make an argument and support it; you can't just lift things off of the internet and treat them as if they were gospel; yes, this will be on the test; no, this will not be on the test; [three to five minutes of sympathetic listening] I'm sorry, but your paper will still be marked down if it's late.

Posted by: af at February 19, 2004 07:26 PM

Wasn't this robot-thingie something that in olden days was called a "book?" Dr. Smart-Professor writes a book, and other folks, even folks really far away, engaged in "distance learning" by reading the book.

So why not just hire Dr. Smart-Professor to write and then tell everyone to go to the darn library if they want to learn something? Get rid of academia. That way, students avoid dangers of college, like unprotected sex and meningitis. And humanity won't have to worry that the robo-profs will become spontaneously intelligent and take over the world.

Or, no, wait, I've got an even better idea. Let's replace the students by robots. Then instead of having annoying dialogues and free thinking, "college" can consist of just training the robots to go out and do important and useful things in the workforce. Wait a minute...

Posted by: angela at February 19, 2004 08:53 PM

Interesting idea, Angela. What might the "adjunct student" look like?

Posted by: DM at February 19, 2004 09:57 PM

I would think that "robot administrators" would be very easy to implement, given the prediliction of university administrators to quote "policy" rather than actually apply thought to issues...

Posted by: david foster at February 19, 2004 10:53 PM

what some of the readers of this list might not know is that the phenomenon of robot profs and administrators is all too real.

in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Pentagon developed a program to create robot academics to protect the canon and American youth in case a Soviet attack destroyed most American universities.

Northrup Frye, Lionel Trilling, and other professors volunteered to provide information for these android instructors. Clark Kerr, former chancellor of Berkeley in the 50s and 60s, agreed to act as the model for the Presbot -an administrator with superhuman strength.

A vertitable profbot race existed in the early 60s. Soviet-era files suggest a 20' foot tall version of Bakhtin that could fire SAM missles may still be buried in Siberia.

Many rumors are floating about this secret program, especially during the Nixon years. Sightings of tweed-wearing instructors spraying tear gas or breathing fire on student protestors at the University of Connecticut in 1971 have never been confirmed. Some Berkeley veterans of the movement recall one student sit-in interrupted by a Presbot that used its powerful sonic yell to quell and stun dissidents. Others believe aged historian Jacques Barzun in fact is a cyborg creature, and that the human Barzun died in 1964 in a tragic pole vaulting accident.

it is surprising no one has written any material on this topic. grad students, take note.

Posted by: better left nameless at February 20, 2004 09:32 AM

I borrowed your idea for my post at
Then I could not get your trackback URL to go though the Haloscan trackback manual ping system. Just thought I'd let you know.

Great idea, by the way!

Posted by: Joseph Yaroch at March 9, 2004 01:05 AM

Hmm...I'm afraid I have no idea how to fix this trackback problem. I wonder if others have had the same issue? Thanks for letting me know.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 9, 2004 11:09 AM

Ahh. The way your trackback system works, you cannot copy the trackback link by right-clicking the "TrackBack" link and copying the link, then using that as the trackback URL.

What you have to do is left-click the "Trackback" link, then copy the trackback URL from the popup window. Seems more convoluted than necessary, but it works if you do it that way.

It appears that different blog sites have different ways of implementing this. So you do not need to do anything. The rest of us need to learn the differnt ways toget the trackback URL.

Posted by: Joseph Yaroch at March 11, 2004 02:40 AM