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Fresno Area Kids Get An Up-Close Look At 'Smart' Robots

It’s Sunday morning in downtown Fresno, and a classroom full of 10-year olds is about to meet an important visitor: a 2-foot-tall, red and white robot.

“Hello, my name is NAO,” says the robot, standing up on a table.

He looks like a mix between a Transformer and a Power Ranger: big head, square shoulders, and what looks like thick gloves and boots. He can wave his arms, walk, dance, and blink his eyes—just like a tiny human.

“I can recognize your face, answer questions, and even play soccer like a pro,” he continues.

NAO was designed to be an interactive companion for people. He’s completely programmable, from the faces he recognizes to what he says and how he moves. And he’s equipped with a library of emotions. When he’s disappointed, he lowers his eyes and shakes his head. Victory is a fist-pump. He can even crouch down and cackle with glee. 

But NAO isn’t in Fresno to show off—he’s here as part of a tech workshop to teach kids how they can develop and use advanced robots. 

Credit Kerry Klein
From left to right, elementary schoolers Zoya Popenoe and Riley Prindiville learn NAO’s programming software.

  “The thing for us is to show them that they don't have to be just users of technology,” says Nicolas Rigaud of for Aldebaran Robotics, the Japanese-owned French company that created Nao. “They can also be creators and build things.”

Rigaud brought the robot to Fresno on the way home from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—one of the biggest tech conventions in the world. He says he wants to demonstrate creative ways of interacting with technology.

“We have this sentence,” says Rigaud: “your kids play games, mine make them. And that's really the whole idea for us.”

This is the first time kids in Fresno have had access to such advanced, humanoid robots—ones that can be programmed to hold conversations and share emotions.  

The workshop is taking place at Geekwise Academy, the educational arm of local tech company Bitwise. Here, a half-dozen fifth-graders and their parents are gathered in a basement classroom with laptops. Their task: write a story for the robot to act out.

“One of the things that is important,” says Rigaud to the room, “is that the robot is not just going to tell a story, but he's also going to express emotions with his body.”

The students begin by learning how to use basic programming software. Within minutes, they start to string together multiple commands: things like, say this phrase, look excited, and do a little dance. Most of their stories are about parties and friendship, and involve a fist pump or two. NAO shouts “yahoo yahoo yahoo!” at the end of one.

"The thing for us is to show them that they don't have to be just users of technology... they can also be creators and build things." - Nicolas Rigaud, Aldebaran Robotics

  Riley Prindiville of Fairmont School in Sanger really likes robots. She’s counting down the months until she can join a robotics team at school. She gives this workshop a thumbs up.

“Yeah, I loved it,” she says. “It's just really interesting to be able to interact with the robot.”

For Carruthers Elementary Schooler Sebastian Lopez-Solis, the joy is in writing his story about the robot slaying dragons.

“I thought it was really cool to see the robot dance and basically tell stories,” he says.

Csaba Toth is a local software developer who organized the event. He met Rigaud at a conference a few months ago and invited him to Fresno. Originally, he wanted Rigaud to speak to other developers. But then he realized the potential for kids.

“Now I'm so happy to saw how kids were excited,” says Toth. “I'm really happy that this came together.”

He says he’ll be inviting Aldebaran Robotics and other tech developers back for more events later on this year.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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