Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Fallacy of ‘Robot’ Teachers

I talk a lot on AI in learning but these days you can’t move for robot teacher articles and presentations, usually some diminutive piece of white plastic, sometimes, oddly, with a tablet stuck on its chest, that invariably responds with silence, something banal or falls over. This is seriously flawed thinking. I call it the ‘Robot Fallacy’, the idea that AI in learning is largely about physical robots. Fuelled by a century of cinema, where killer, and sometimes friendlier, robots dominate, due to the fact that it is a visual medium and needs ‘characters’ in drama, robots signify lazy thinking about AI. In practice, 99% of AI has nothing to do with robots. We are all enmeshed in AI, as AI is the new UI. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and most other online services are all mediated by AI, with not a robot in sight. Sure, Amazon uses them in its warehouses but this is a tiny portion of the process.
Robot teachers are, largely, as stupid an idea as robot drivers in self-driving cars, robot cleaners pushing a robot vacuum cleaner around the floor or a robot pilot sitting in the cockpit running autopilot on a plane. Auto pilot is a sophisticated piece of invisible software with secondary systems. The whole point of these self-driven systems is to ‘eliminate’ humans. Sure there’s a role for companion robots for people with severe learning difficulties or the very young, but on the whole the idea of a robot teacher is ridiculous. The point of this technology is to augment or disintermediate the physical teacher. Your automated banking is not a robot teller, it is online. Not a robot in sight.
The most ridiculous examples I know of AI in learning, are robot projects. They get tons of attention and grants. Doomed to succeed, they are usually a simple chatbot inside a big bit of plastic with barely moveable parts. Take Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from Japan, whose robot self gives lectures, while he swans around conferences. To be fair his robot self looks more human than himself. This is bizarre and says more about the useless pedagogy of the lecture than any useful lessons in learning. My sense is that it’s a form of device fetish – education has disastrously focused on spending money on devices and not solutions to pedagogic problems. Tablets have been showered on schools in acts of folly. The robot thing is simply a another alluring device.
Robots in factories, that find, select and porter goods around factories make sense. Robots in manufacturing with their precision, speed and strength makes sense. Self-driving cars, make sense. Robot vehicles on Mars make sense. Robot teachers make no sense.
It is not just that AI has no significant cognition. AI is an ‘idiot savant’, incredibly good at specific, narrowly defined tasks but magnificently bad at generalist tasks – namely being a teacher. There is a huge amount of unwarranted hype around AI, not helped by the robotic presentation of robots as teachers, whereas in practice, AI can only be applied online to many specific parts of the learning journey. So far it is a story of augmentation not automation.
Find things out
That is not to say that AI has no role to play in learning. In fact, it will shape what we learn, why we learn ad how we learn. AI, in my opinion, will be the single most important technology to shape the learning landscape in the future. In many ways it already has. Google changed things for the better, a useful tool that heralded an irreversible pedagogic shift. Amazon revolutionized access to books, online and offline, as well as self-publishing. AI also shapes social media, as algorithms select personalized information on your timelines. It is a shame that the only form of AI you’re likely to see formally adopted by education is plagiarism checkers – but there you go – education can be a slow learner.
Online learning
That first wave of Google-led search and social media had had a profound influence on the learning landscape but the second wave is more significant, with AI-driven online content creation, curation, consolidation, adaption, personalization, retrieval and assessment. Tools now exist to do all of these using AI, and the efficacy is clear. Take one example, content creation. WildFire creates content in minutes not months, at a fraction of the cost of traditional online learning. Guided curation using AI is also possible. Spaced practice tools are now readily available and online assessment has benefited from online identification, face recognition, keyboard pattern checks and so on.
Learner interfaces
Another feature of this second generation AI is the shift in interfaces for learning. With NLP (Natural Language Processing) we also have text to speech (automated podcasts) and speech to text (speech recognition). This has opened up a switch from poor retention multiple-choice to open input, as well as spoken interaction. With WildFire, we have open input and interactive speech recognition for both navigation and interactive retrieval.
One recent advance has been in chatbots, which uses our natural propensity for dialogue to teach and learn. This return to a more Socratic approach to learning as been enabled by smart AI. These chatbots are used to find things, student support, deliver learning and mentor. Otto is a chatbot that sits above your content and find answers and learning opportunities for you as performance support, when you need it. We’ve developed an assessment chatbot that delivers questions on what you’ve learnt. Other chatbots provide help and support on courses. (10 uses of chatbots in learning)

So AI is present right across the learning journey. It can already deliver answers to questions, find things, create content, curate, allow natural language input and output, deliver personalized, adaptive learning as well as enable online assessment. Major learning services, such as Duolingo, are now delivering language learning to hundreds of millions of learners. With the introduction of software that learns (machine learning) we have software that get better the more you use it. Teachers have brains that are superb at general teaching but, bit by bit, aspects of teaching and learning practice will be automated. That has already happened. Every learner uses AI to search and find. Almost every learner uses AI-mediated social media. Teachers use it for CPD. AI at present augments teaching but a teacher is not replicable or scalable. If we want to solve the problem of increasing demand for learning we need to scale the process of teaching and learning. That has little or nothing to do with silly, teacher robots but everything to do with AI.

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