Will robots replace teachers?

On the 90th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis – one of the earliest to include a robot – we ponder the role of robots in education.

In 2004, IBM executive Charles Lickel was eating in a restaurant when he noticed his fellow-diners abandoning their meals and heading towards the bar. Why the desperate scramble? They were rushing to watch Jeopardy!, a long-running and addictive quiz show. Seven years later, after Lickel had repeatedly fought for it, IBM built a machine called Watson to compete in Jeopardy!. It was to be a grand test of computing capabilities: a machine that could answer general knowledge questions about any subject at any time in history. Watson at first had some problems. When asked a question about 19th century British literature, the computer came up with the Pet Shop Boys – an English pop group – instead of Oliver Twist. But after much tweaking by its programmers, it eventually beat its human competitors.

The struggle between man and machine is nothing new. Back in the 15th century there were complaints that Gutenberg’s printing press would make monks lazy (part of their job was to copy manuscripts by hand). In 16th century England, William Lee presented his newly-invented knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in order to get a patent. She was so worried that hand-knitters would lose their jobs that she refused.

Half a millennium later, the world of work has changed drastically because of automation. Fritz Lang’s vision of workers slaving away in cavernous factories, as seen in Metropolis, has largely come true in developing countries. But has the world of education changed, too?

If you look at pictures of classrooms around the world over the last 150 years, the surprising thing is how little they have changed. There’s a teacher at the front with some kind of screen or board on which he or she writes. There are children in rows or clusters. Only in a few societies – notably in South Korea – has the paradigm occasionally been challenged by replacing the teacher.

In 2011, news came out of South Korea that the country was piloting a robot-teacher program for Elementary students. The robots, called Engkey, were controlled by remote teachers in the Philippines. The program helped to make up for the shortage of English teachers in the country, and while the robots were apparently motivating for the children, the idea was not to replace real teachers.

engkey

Engkey. Image from https://www.slashgear.com

The fact is, automatons – by which I mean robots and any form of artificial intelligence – are extraordinarily good at some tasks and extraordinarily bad at others. When the parameters of the task are limited, such as knowing the finite possibilities of a chess match or doing calculus, automatons are brilliant. (In 1997, IBM’s machine, Deep Blue, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who promptly accused IBM of cheating.) But other simple-sounding tasks are beyond them. While trying to build robots to do housework, inventors realized the biggest problem was teaching the robots to walk. In fact, most household chores are tricky for robots. In 2010, a team of UC Berkeley researchers built a robot that could fold towels. Unfortunately, each towel took 24 minutes to fold – fine if you have all week to do the laundry.

Ask any educator if robots will ever replace teachers and they’ll say no. Teachers have multiple roles: guides, mentors, facilitators. They do the soft skills – motivating students, explaining nuances of language, and building rapport – that machines can’t do. Most importantly, robots can’t inspire us.

Tucker Balch, associate professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “I don’t think a robot will ever be better than a person. Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you’re teaching.”

Similarly, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, identifies three reasons why human teachers are essential: creating content, answering tough questions and providing inspiration.

Replacement of human teachers, then, seems unlikely. Having said that, what teacher wouldn’t appreciate a robot to help with the menial tasks machines excel in – checking attendance, grading homework, cleaning the board? Or perhaps our model should be a movie robot, but not the one from Metropolis, which ended up getting burned at the stake. In Star Wars, C-3P0 was designed by Anakin Skywalker as a translation machine, “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” Now that might be useful in a language classroom.



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