Thursday, May 31, 2018

20 important takeaways for learning world from Mary Meeker's brilliant tech trends

Mary Meeker’s slide deck has a reputation of being the Delphic Oracle of tech. But, at 294 slides it’s a lot to take in. Don’t worry, I’ve been through them all. It has tons on economic stuff that is of marginal interest to education and training but there's plenty to to get our teeth into. We're not immune to tech trends, indeed we tend to follow in lock-step, just a bit later than everyone else. Among the data are lots of fascinating insights that point the way forward in terms of what we're likely to be doing over the next decade.
So here’s a really quick, top-end summary for folk in the learning game.
1. AI is getting bigger
Large tech companies see AI as their core strategy and enterprise spend on AI will increase. Google’s machine learning word recognition has just equalled human levels of accuracy. We can expect this to happen in the learning world with AI tools and services being used across the learning journey from engagement, support, chatbots, content creation, content curation, consolidation, assessment and wellbeing. For more detail see these AI in learning articles.
2. Employment flux
Technology is causing employment to change. Job roles are changing with more tech jobs but it looks as though unemployment is falling and that massive unemployment through tech is not happening, at least in the US. No need to panic – yet and be careful of hyperbole in this area.
3. Personalisation
This is getting ubiquitous online with Google, newfeeds, social media, music, movies, advertising, navigation, transport and buying online. It will happen in learning with everyone getting a unique learning experience that suits their needs and progress. Adaptive learning, based on individual and aggregated data, really does matter. There's lots of opportunities for personalised learning.
4. Data matters
Data matters but big data really matters. The problem in the learning world is that we have relatively small amounts of data at the user, course and institutional level. Expect data advantages to be leveraged elsewhere in online learning, on a greater scale.
5. Lifelong learning
Unusually there are five slides (232-236) devoted to Lifelong Learning. MOOCs continue to be popular, despite what critics claim. Top online courses, in general, are almost all in AI! 

6. Educational online ballooning
“Educational content usage online is ramping fast”with over 1 billion daily educational videos watched. There is evidence that use of the Internet for informal and formal learning is taking off.

7. Workplace learning and re-skilling getting big
Workforce online learning is getting big with increases in skills training and re-skilling. The need for skills training is rising along with employment needs, so workplace learning and re-skilling is increasing.
8. Voice the new UI
Voice is the new UI – Alexa led the way, so expect voice to become a way of interacting with learning materials. We’ve just completed a 100% voice led implementation of WildFire. The entire experience, navigation and voice interactions, means there’s no typing at all and there's lots of ways voice will change learning.
9. Messaging expanding
Messaging is going through the roof, so expect this to enter the learning game through more dialogue-like services. As learners use messaging as their primary way of communicating online, so this will be expected in online learning – hence the rise of the learning chatbot.
10. Chatbots
These are getting big. Increasing use in customer service is leading to their use elsewhere. There are many reasons to suppose that chatbots will be big in learning and lots of possible applications. They are already in the learning world, through Otto (Learning Pool), WildFire, Filter and others.
11. Video expanding
Use of video is increasing, as it will in learning. We can expect more adjunct products in learning around video, for example AI-created content produced automatically from video. We’ve been doing this with WildFire, where we use the automatically grabbed transcript and AI to create online learning, in minutes not months.
12. Workflow changing

Slack, Zoom and other tools transforming workflow and that is where learning and performance support has to be positioned, in those tools to catch people in the process of working, where they need help and support. Otto is a workflow chatbot that is integrated into many of these social platforms, accessible and on hand for performance support.
13. New content types emerging
Huge use of Twitch for watching games, signals new media types and genres. These could be used in learning. We will increasingly see messaging, chat, voice and other forms of UI enter the learning world.
14. Subscription service growth
People happy to pay subscriptions for services, as long as pricing is right. I can see this expanding in learning, especially on the use of smart, AI-like services, such as chatbots.
15. Big tech
Big Tech companies moving into new sectors – Google into retail, Amazon into advertising –  will continue and we can expect to see one of them move into the learning space some time soon. USA and China now the leading players. Europe’s role diminishing. My guess is that this will be on the back of the great strides they’re making on their core technical strategy - AI.
16. Tech saturation
As the world becomes saturated with mobile phones and other devices, sales growth is falling. They’re getting better, faster, smaller and cheaper. We can now get out of the ‘device-fetish’ era in learning and stop spending on devices to focus on services.
17. More online
People are spending more time online, up to 5.9 hours per day from 5.6 hours. If you want to get to learners you’ll increasingly find them online. This is borne out by the annual growth figures in online learning.
18. Physical retail sales declining
Physical retail sales de-accelerating as will physical delivery in classrooms, lecture theatres and training rooms. The pendulum swing to online will continue in retail and learning.
19. Privacy Paradox
As data becomes the new oil, oil leaks and spills also become a problem, so using data becomes more of a problem within the learning game. A curious but very real paradox. 
20. Warning for Europe
There’s an interesting little warning for Europe on slide 35, saying there’s a danger of unexpected consequences on too strict data regulation that restricts innovation and progress in Europe in particular. Interesting and, as you can see here, I agree.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Most satisfying and relevant thing I've ever done...

So here’s a story. I sponsor a football team in Scotland – Musselburgh Windsor. It’s cool having your company name, WildFire, emblazoned on the shirt fronts, but that’s not the point. The point is - this is the world I came from. I know it well. Without community structure, discipline and sport, many would be getting into mischief – real mischief, for some the sort of mischief that gets you locked away. For far too long, young working class lads have been vilified and ignored. They come out at the bottom of every educational league table but at the top of every crime and prison statistic. What they don’t need is yet more middle-class people getting jobs to ‘support’ their community needs. We need to listen to what they want and fund it directly. 
The team is coached by a young lad, only 22, who on leaving school became an apprentice. He beat literally hundreds of other candidates and is now doing very well in a handsomely paid job in which he excels. Quick-witted, smart and organised, he showed leadership from an early age by coaching others just a little bit younger than himself. He commands respect but so do the other adults in the coaching staff and the parents who turn up to give support, make tea at half time and do most of the organising. They have teams across a range of age groups as well as a team for refugees and kids from care homes.
What matters here is the structure and support football gives to the young people who do not go to University. These lads show real comradeship and are part of a solid community. They learn about teamwork, communicating with others, respecting others. Training, avoiding excesses on a Friday night and the support of their parents and siblings matter. You don’t train, you don’t play. It gives them pride and purpose. You may not like football or have little contact with working class lads like these but believe me, all of this matters – really matters.
For some, their first trip abroad on their own was with the team to a tournament in Barcelona, where they reached the final, and lost narrowly. Sure they were a handful but that’s part of the learning process. But the greatest lesson they learn is that of winning and losing. They won the league this year, after being second and third for most of the season – that took grit, effort and determination but they lost in their big Cup Final 7-6 to Airdrie on penalties. Some of the greatest lessons in life come from losing.
For years I’ve been arguing, defending and writing about the imbalance in our education system, one that has led to a bloated, academic system, especially HE, at the expense of a more balanced system that suits all. Thankfully we have an apprenticeship levy and T-levels on the way - and about time. We're using WildFire in apprenticeship training, all created by AI. Around the world, nations are wakening up to the needs for vocational skills. I'll be arguing for this in Rwanda later this year. The minority of young people go to University, but even on the left the debate is ALL about students, student fees and HE. If you want to reduce knife crime in London, or youth crime anywhere, look to solutions like this. Give young people purpose and structure.
An update - they won the league and 4/5 cups. The coach Euan, gave a brilliant speech in the pub at the end of the season, going through each player, one by one, and thanking them. As I write this, I feel as pleased as a plum.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Case Against Education – some inconvenient truths…. a must read

Bryan Caplan has dared to ask an almost taboo question, ‘Could it be that we have too much education?’ Brave question.
Education uber alles
In what is a deeply researched and comprehensive book, he concludes that education, especially Higher Education, is around 80% ‘signaling’, therefore much can be seen as of little value to society or even the students themselves. Not all, he still thinks there is essential value in the 20% proportion. A degree for many, however, has become a sticker on your forehead saying ‘hire me’. More people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer and the percentage of your life being schooled is increasing. But to what end? Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it “neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives”. His ‘signaling’ theory is persuasive, as it explains some odd phenomena, such as prevalence of cheating, the final year being worth more than all previous years, rising graduate underemployment and so on. Signalling raises salaries but not necessarily skills, through credential inflation, that’s why he thinks it’s so wasteful.
This leads him to the heretical claim that we should spend less on education, allowing that money to be spent elsewhere. He argues that arguments for lowering education spend tend to be politically unacceptable but “At what point would education spending be excessive?” - a reasonable question. In the US it’s $1.1 trillion. His recommendation is that we need less spend as that will deflate runaway creditialism, without reducing skills.
You’ll be thinking of all sorts of arguments against this, as I was, but just as you think you have an objection, Caplan has an answer, backed up by research. Time and time again he uncovers key studies that are rather shocking, such as those on the lack of evidence for education improving critical thinking. He gets rather tired of educators telling him that what they do ‘can’t be measured’ – it’s a cop out he claims. What I did like about this economist’s arguments was that he wasn’t scared to tackle educational issues, like the curriculum, quality of teaching and actual (as opposed to claimed) outcomes. 
Why teach so much academic stuff for so long, for almost two decades, when they’re going to forget it anyway. Reading, writing and maths are necessary basic skills but much of the otherworldly curriculum, he argues, is outdated. Millions learning a foreign language in the US, merely for college admission, something they never use, and in any case couldn’t use, as they don’t gain even a basic competence. Schools have the odd and catastrophic result of making almost no one fluent in a language. As proof of futility of signaling he points out that we’re still teaching a dead language – Latin. Much of maths, especially algebra, abstruse number theory and geometry, and other subjects, are notoriously irrelevant, with little transfer, and even if useful, the knowledge is largely forgotten. The existing system seems unable to change, even when there’s overwhelming evidence of failure – for example forgetting during the long summer recess.
Vocational learning
Caplan thinks we should Reboot vocational learning. This, he thinks, is a more worthwhile spend. We have evidence that it works from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. ‘Signaling’ theory tilts us towards rebalancing the system towards vocational. It raises pay, reduces unemployment and increases school completion.  The fact that it carries a stigma, reinforces his ‘signaling’ theory, where middle class parents and employers rank vocational learners as inferior, is proof of his general proposition. However, the social return of vocational learning is clear and proven. In an interesting comparison, he notes that on-the-job training ‘internships’ are regarded as admirable for academic students but looked down upon in vocational learning. We have lost the admirable idea that early exposure to work, even Saturday jobs, are valuable, as “Early jobs are good for kids and good for society”. Unfortunately, we have a system that crowd-pleases the middle classes, while the disaffected and school drop-outs become embittered. Forcing bored kids through a relentless diet of academic work for 13 or more years makes them resentful – it backfires. 
Higher education
Like Roger Schank, Caplan thinks there’s two things wrong with Higher Education, what we teach and how we teach it. Research on the idea that academia broadens horizons in also rather bleak. Post-testing, even among garduates in the US shows a woeful lack of skills and knowledge. Only around 60% of students attend lectures in the first place, no one takes courses in their University unless they are mandated (though it’s easy and free) showing a puzzling disinterest in wider intellectual development. One fewer degree, it would appear, would make little difference as credential inflation has been rampant. The answer to not having a good view at a concert may for the individual to stand up, but if everyone stands up, no one gains. Worse still, to push an academic track on the “failure prone majority is cruelly misleading”. 
International evidence
At the national level, he shows that research about the economic benefits of education seem to “vanish”. The effects when found, seem “puny” and do not seem to justify the vast sums spent on education, making it more of an act of faith than evidence based policy. There is even evidence that reverse causation may be at work here. It is not that schooling creates prosperity but prosperity leads to more schooling. The richer a country becomes, the more it spends on politically appealing education. Yet Harvard’s Lant Pritchett, formerly of the World Bank, did the data crunching and in a now famous article ‘Where has all the education gone?’ found little evidence between education and higher economic growth. Cambridge economist, Ha-Jon Chang refutes the idea that ‘more education in itself is not going to make a country richer’ and there are plenty of counter examples.
Even worse, could education spend be increasing inequalities in society? Challenging question. Inequalities are certainly rising, especially in countries with large education spends. Caplan argues that massive subsidies for education hurt the poor through credential inflation, which reshapes the job market to their detriment. The economy hasn’t changed, we just have more graduates. On that note I highly recommend The Road to Somewhere by David Goodwin, who unpacks the Brexit phenomenon in the UK in terms of the emergence of a 'graduate' class. A similar thing may have happened in the US and elsewhere. To continue on this treadmill, he thinks, is a mistake.
Online education
His signalling theory also explains why online education, that simply apes the current system, MOOCs for example, are bound to fail. No matter how successful they are, they don’t provide the ‘signal’  (the degree) and that’s what students are really paying for. Students are buying signals, not human capital. Online learning makes perfect sense in terms of access, flexibility, cost and convenience - yet all of that goes out the window if the signalling is absent.
Anyone who is serious about education policy and open minded enough to consider the idea, not that education is bad, but that we’re spending far too much on the wrong things, should read this book. As Caplan says, he’s really a whistleblower. One of the reasons that education doesn’t really get put through the economic, sociological, political and pedagogic wringer, is that most of the people responsible for policy, have been through or work in its institutions. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing. His recommendations are that we focus on literacy and numeracy but cut back on spend to counter the non-productive ‘signalling’ and ‘credential inflation’ and spend more on vocational learning or other social goods, such as health, social care, whatever we decide. This is not just a good book, it is essential reading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

10 reasons why GDPR is a Kafkaesque mess….

I use the word ‘Kafkaesque’ deliberately, as in Kafka’s novel The Castle, the unknown authorities engage K in a never-ending, futile, bureaucratic process where he never really knows why he is being asked to do anything or by whom. So it is with GDPR. Organisations are sending out zillions of emails, just because they think someone told them to. Millions are receiving these emails, many unnecessary. Some may even be illegal breaking the very rules they are meant to be enforcing. Ironically GDPR phishing scams are already hitting our mailboxes, which spread malware or steal personal dataEmails containing other people's email addresses are being sent out. Some US newspapers have closed down access from EU. Tsunamis of emails are being sent out (and largely ignored), ironically to prevent emails being sent out.
GDPR is an EU regulation ((EU) 2016/679) and one of the worst regulations The EU Castle has ever come up with. In a typical top-down, centralised fashion, shaped by lobbyists and not common-sense, the EU has managed to turn what should have been a practical, workable idea into a bureaucratic nightmare. It must be the first law where the majority of organisations will be in breach of that law on the day it is implemented - on Friday!
1. Ambitious
The New York Times interviewed a range of data experts and found that even these experts found the regulations incomprehensible. It’s a massive tangle of badly worded regulation, completely over-engineered. The consequences for organisations of all sizes are horrific. More compulsory processes, more mandatory documentation, in some cases Data Protection Officers (DPO) and, of course, a slew of useless courses. It is the blind leading the blind.
2. Ambiguous
Worse still many experts warned that it was flawed. Its ambiguities are already being exposed. The badly written Eurospeak regulations are typically vague, written by people who have given little thought to its implementation; "undue delay", “likelihood of (high) risk to rights and freedoms" and "disproportionate effort" are just a few examples of the vagueness. This is a boon for lawyers and the vagueness will be played out in an ever-increasing Kafkaesque game played for years through the European Courts. Kafka’s The Trial will be the manual for this particular charade.
4. Myopic
Rather than work back from what is actually needed, based on user needs, actual structures and practical measures, they’ve gone for blanket fixes based on old assumptions. These are laws written by people who don’t really understand what data is, how it is stored and its use in leading edge technology. They see data as being stored like furniture in a storage facility. They ask for clear specifications on use, insensitive to how it is used in machine learning and more contemporary forms of AI, where the outputs may not be clear. We saw this gulf when Zuckerberg was interviewed by US Senators. This time, the gulf is written into bad law.
5. Massive hit for organisations
Organisations have to see this as a ‘project’ using real staff to create milestones for oodles of documentation and process that will not only incur a large initial cost but also on-going costs. Many people, who wouldn’t know a database if it were in their soup will become Data Tsars. Many organisations will not have data management clauses in contracts with subcontractors. Education is just one example, where most institutions are not ready and many are simply ignoring the problem as they don't have the resources to cope. This is a big problem. Expect some wildfires here. This is all real time and real money.
6. Small companies will suffer
The big boys will be fine. They have the resources to handle this hammer blow but small businesses will not. It will break many on the back of increased costs and fear of illegality. In a laughable exception the EU decided to exempt small businesses from having to hire a Data Protection Officer – really!
7. Hits on revenue
One unexpected consequence is the hit on revenues for charities who may not get reconsent replies. This may apply to all sorts of businesses, an unforeseen consequence of an ill-defined regulation. The effects on revenues have, I suspect been underestimated.
8. Users flooded
On the client side, users are receiving a ton of emails, most of which are being ignored, not because people are indifferent, but because they don’t have the time or inclination to respond. Rather than focussing on reconsent, the legislation would have been better formed if it simply informed existing users. Many organisations are being panicked into demanding actual consent when it is not necessary.
9. Fines
Fines of up to EUR 20,000,000 or 4% of the total worldwide turnover are payable (whichever is bigger), yet it is not clear how lenient or harsh they will be. Organisations are petrified and don’t really know how to quantify the risks. I can understand using this level of threat with the big boys, who will have the best of lawyers but what about the little companies who will read this stuff and have to live with the risks. The truth is, they really don’t actually know what it means and how to eliminate the risks. We’ve already had prosecutions bought against companies, by oddballs like Max Schrems. This could be a legislative nightmare with thousands of cases being brought to the courts.
10. Unforeseen consequences
It all comes into force on 25 May 2018. Of course, many are unprepared, many lack the resources to do what is demanded of them and some will suffer – badly. The suffering will be extra costs, lost revenues, lost opportunities and possibly going under. It should never have been like this. I can also see small-scale data theft as a tactic to put competitors out of business, as the reporting rules are draconian. I can see companies lose revenues through consent failure by lazy users. I can see a lot of problems here.

Everyone agrees that we need some consumer protection. You need a visible opt-in box, if I unsubscribe I want to know that you’ve done it. I don’t want you misusing my data. But that’s not what this ended up being. It’s ended up as a mess. Rather than KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) they’ve gone for KICK (Keep it Complicated and Kafkaesque). Kafka died before he could finish The Castle – and many will certainly lose the will to live or be beaten into submission as this stupid piece of regulation exhausts us with it’s bureaucratic blunt-force.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Bullshit Jobs - how capitalism has replaced real jobs with BS jobs....

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, an LSE anthropologist and the guy who gave us the phrase “the 99%”, surfaces something we’ve all come across. As jobs have shifted into services, no end of cosy jobs have been created for middle-class workers. Looking for an easy life. Graeber argues that these jobs are simply ends-in-themselves and hangs several species out to dry. Few would disagree.
His book explores the Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy but there’s an increasing list of jobs for people who pretend to do things in an organisation, which the organisation is not actually doing. Compliance checking and training is probably top of the list. Diversity training has been proven in large-scale studies to be ineffective, sometimes with a negative effect. Yet tens of thousands are still employed in this fatuous activity. GDPR is yet another manifestation of this. Organisations overreact and build structures, systems and jobs to deal with barely perceptible problems. Every problem needs a ‘course’, a variation on the ‘if you walk around with a hammer in your hand, everything starts looking like a nail’.
Graeber argues that, far from freeing us up for more leisure time, technology is being used to make us comply. HR has become the part of the organisation that protects the organisation from its own employees. We have armies of people telling us not what we should be doing but what we should NOT be doing. They now see employees as having pathological weaknesses – racism, sexism, unconscious bias and wellbeing problems to be sorted by hokey ‘courses’ and doses of Mindfulness, perhaps the only solution that actually delivers the very opposite of what it promises. This idea, that all employees are psychologically flawed and biased, has become the norm. Therapy culture has invaded HR, creating tons of jobs for people who are medically, and in any other sense of the word, unqualified to solve the imaginary problems they create. It’s a vicious circle.
Charities abound with more freelance ‘admin’ people, researchers and well paid executives than clients. The Charity Commission has little handle on the cost to spend ration of most charities. Without good governance they quickly turn into job creation schemes for the CEOs friends and acquaintances. I recently had to deal with Comic Relief. Two of their senior managers asked me in for a meeting, with a specific brief. I arrived only to find that both had forgotten that the meeting had been arranged (and both had PAs!). They were apologetic but couldn’t manage their own lives never mind a large business.
In academia, the amount of 2nd and 3rd rate research has rocketed, pressed into ever more journals that fewer and fewer read. On top of this layer upon layer of academic administration jobs have been created, making Higher Education increasingly expensive. The Case for Education by the economist Bryan Caplan, explores this very issue, with detailed research showing that funding more and more higher education is wasteful, as it is largely (80% not wholly) ‘signalling’. Making young people do more and more degrees is simply credential inflation.

Having worked for over 35 years in business, you soon learn to sniff this out. When meetings have more than three people in them, there’s usually some BS work in the room. When an organisation gets bogged down in research and report writing (most quangos I know) you can read the BS that rolls off the press. The productivity puzzle is not really a puzzle. It’s clear for all to see. Technology does make us more productive but not if it’s used to create tasks jobs that do non-productive things.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A/B testing shows that Pavlovian gamification does not work

A/B testing
One of the benefits of the data revolution, is that new data techniques can be used to give insights into what works and what does not work in learning. A/B testing is one such technique. It is widely used in digital marketing and something that the world’s largest tech companies routinely use – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix and so on. You try two things, wait, measure the results and choose the winner. It only works when you have large numbers of users, therefore data points. It allows for quick comparative testing and evaluation. We are now seeing this being used in education and one of the first results is surprising. 
A/B testing on lesson plans
Benjamin Jones, at Northwestern University, wanted to know what lesson plans were more successful than others, so he randomly implemented different lesson plans in a series of A/B test and waited on the results. His EDU STAR platform delivered the plans and harvested the results of short tests, to see which lesson plans got better results. One of his first A/B tests was on the teaching of fractions using gamification v non-gamification lesson plans. One group did a straight 'Diving Fractions' lesson, the other a 'Basketball Dividing Fractions' lesson. This was an exciting experiment, as many thought that gamification was literally a game changer, a technique that could significantly raise the efficacy of teaching, especially in maths. So what happened?
In came the results. The gamification lesson plan fared worse than non-gamified lesson plans. There are many possible reasons for this; extra cognitive-load required for the mechanics of the game, loss of focus on the actual learning, time wasted and so on. Interestingly, the kids spent more time in the gamified lesson (on average 4.5 minutes longer) but learnt less, suggesting that interest may be trumped by poorer deep processing and learning. But all we need to know at this point is that gamification fared badly when compared to more straightforward teaching methods. Interesting.
Primitively Pavlovian
There is a growing body of evidence that points towards ‘gamification’ not being the pedagogic silver bullet that many imagine. The intuitive and popular appeal of computer games, combined with overactive marketing from some vendors, may be doing more harm than good. I have pointed towards negative results in previous articles and suspect that the primitive, Pavlovian techniques commonly employed; leader boards, rewards and badges are of less use than the more deeply structural techniques, such as levels, allowing for failure and simulation techiques. Unfortunately, the Pavlovian stuff is easier to implement. This is a complex area that requires unpacking, as ‘gamification’ is a broad term, that includes many techniques. 
A word on research…
A/B testing may be the one saviour here, in that educational techniques may be individually tested, quickly and cheaply. Traditional research takes ages and is costly. Schools need to be contacted, students selected, administration completed – this all takes time – lots of time. The experiments are also often costly and time consuming, whereas randomised experiments can be quick and cheap. In particular, online learning has lots to gain. A/B testing can improve interface design and lower cognitive load but it can also quickly identify efficacious interventions. Adding the simple button ‘Learn More’ increased sign-ups to Obama’s campaign. They identified this through A/B testing.
Stephens-Davidowitz S (2017) Everybody Lies. P276

Jones B (2012) Harnessing technology to Improve K-12 Education. Hamilton Project Discussion Paper.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Google just announced an AI bot that could change teaching & learning…. consequences are both exciting & terrifying…

Bot reversal
Revealed during a Google conference, Google Duplex stole the show. They stunned the audience with two telephone conversations, to real businesses, initiated and competed by a bot. If anything, the real people in the businesses sounded more confused than the bot. The bots were from Google Assistant and delivered by Google Duplex. Note that this reverses the usual person speaks to bot. In fact, it’s hard to tell which one is real. Here, the bot is speaking to real people. We are about to see a whole range of things done by humans replaced by bots in customer service.
Lessons in learning
This reversal is interesting in education and training, as it supports the idea of a bot as a tutor, teacher, trainer or mentor. I've already written about how bots can be used in learning. The learners remain real but the teaching could be, to a degree, automated. Most of the time we talk to each other through dialogue. This is how things get done in the real world, it is also how many of us learn. Good teachers engage learners in dialogue. But suppose that bots become so good that they can perform one half of this dialogue?
This is a tough call for software. There’s the speech recognition itself. It also has to sound natural, but natural is a bit messy. I can say ‘A meal for four, at four’ – that’s tricky. On top of this, we go fast, pause, change direction, interrupt but also expect fast responses. This is what Google have tackled head-on with neural networks and trained bots.
Domain specific
Google Duplex does not pretend to understands general conversations. It is domain-specific – which is why its first deployment will be customer service over the phone. You need to train it in a specific domain, like hairdressing or doctor appointments, then encapsulate lots of tricks to make it work. But in domain specific areas, we can see how subject-specific teaching bots could do well here. Bots, on say maths or biology or language learning, are sure to benefit from this tech. There is no way the tech is anywhere near ‘replacing teachers but they can certainly augment, enhance, whatever you want to call it, the teacher’s role.

We’re not far off from bots like these being as common as automated check-outs and ATMs. I’ve been working on bots like these for some time and we were quick to realise that this ‘reversal’ is exactly what ‘teaching’ bots needed. There are some real issues around their use, such as our right to know that it is a bot on the other end of the line. And their use in spam calls. But if it makes our lives easier and takes the pain away from dealing with Doctor’s receptionists and call centres – that’s a win for me. If you’re interested in doing something ‘real’ with bots in corporate learning, contact me here….