ARE ROBOT TEACHERS INEVITABLE?

Robot copyIn early May 2016, 300 Georgia Tech students discovered that their teacher aide, Jill Watson, was not a real person. In fact, ‘she’ was a robot that had been capably supporting them via online voice recognition software all through the semester. Rather aptly, it was an online course on artificial intelligence. Most of the students were simply amused by this admission. Others were not as happy, given that there had been no disclosure of the non-human nature of their online helper. But it gets you wondering, doesn’t it? Where is the limit on the robot support that could be offered to school students?

Mattel’s latest Hello Barbie is another case in point. This interactive doll can listen to a child’s conversation, and then provide a contextual comment from the 8000 different responses in its memory bank. In just a few years from now, similar devices (that hopefully don’t look like Barbie) could be programmed to provide explicit learning support for each student.

Are there any concerns with these devices? There are many. All conversations are being stored in the Cloud, so there are some ominous privacy questions to be considered here. And at what point do these robots adopt a cyber-ethical stance on various issues? Would we ever want children to develop their values from a non-human entity?

Artificial intelligence has well and truly arrived in our everyday lives. The contentious issues are significant…. but then, so are the benefits. These assistants will release us from many tedious tasks in our personal and professional lives. Data processing, learning analytics and rapid online searching are just some of the advantages of these innovations. But here is one of the most pertinent questions of all: Will robots partly replace adults who work in schools?

Well… this process has already occurred for hundreds of years in other professions. Ever since the Industrial Age, the work of millions of people has been supplanted by machinery. Admittedly, it has not been on a scale that is likely in the pending future. In ‘The Rise Of The Robots’, Martin Ford maintains that around 40% of all employees around the world will see significant restructuring or even loss of their daily work within the next decade.

Does this mean that we will see higher unemployment? Not necessarily. According to futurist Thomas Frey, many all-new occupations will become more commonplace eg crypto-currency bankers, augmented reality architects, driverless machine engineers. For schools, US-based education forecasters KnowledgeWorks conjecture about roles such as competency trackers, data stewards, micro-credential analysts and pop-up reality producers.

The dilemma with all of this astonishing new work? There is a wide gap between many people’s present skills, and the new skills they will need for these advanced roles. A part-result? We will always be learning and updating our professional skills. Andragogy (the art and science of adult learning) will become as important in schools as the child version (ie pedagogy). This andragogy will be continuous, evidence-based and results-driven. As well as full degrees, emphasis will be placed on micro-credentialling in order to support time-poor educators.

Regardless of the efforts we each make, is it still possible that robots will take over our jobs? Well… when it comes to the future, you can never say ‘never’. However, I find it difficult to believe that society will accept everyone being replaced by robots. If someone is not receiving a wage, then they won’t be paying taxes. It’s difficult to see our politicians accepting that state of affairs. Perhaps even more importantly, if no-one is actively working, then what will they do with their time every day?

Here’s one thing we can probably guarantee: The long-term structure of work will change forever. A single full-time one-job-for-life will become a rarity. In any case, most Under-30s shudder at the thought of remaining in one work position for 40 or more years. We may need to keep this in mind as we prepare young people for this future world of work. But what about us right now? For those adults who work with students, and who want to keep their job, what can be done about these changing work patterns? Here are two compelling options.

Point 1. Keep Learning. Education in itself is obviously about helping young people to learn. But it needs to be equally so for the adults who work in the field. The reality? It is hypocritical to be employed in the education profession, and yet not be prepared to learn and develop your self. Thankfully, the vast majority of educators are obsessed about their own learning. In the next ten years, they will need to be. ICT and improved pedagogy are not passing fads; they are here to stay, and will progress rapidly. But is this obsession with technology leading to a loss of our very humanity? Let’s look at Option 2.

2. Generate Empathy. Why focus on empathy? Basically, because robots cannot provide it. Robots do not have soul. They never will. I don’t care what the futurists say about the pending age of spiritual machines. These robots will always be artificial constructs that are developed to mimic human behavior. So what do we need to do as authentic humans? Here’s one obvious answer: Explore and deepen our empathic connection with others. Refine our social capacity and respect for different cultures and beliefs (are you listening, Donald Trump?). Empathy will become the critical 21st century skill. If you want to stay employed in education, look for every way possible to further refine your empathic support for children. They need it; and it help you to do your work more effectively.

A final thought? The application of technology in education is delicately balanced between Choice and Chance. Choice is when we design our preferred futures, then backward map to the present time, and steadily work on creating those futures. Chance is when we abrogate all responsibility for developing what is up ahead, and simply concede to outside forces that inflict our future on us. Can we stop the rise of the artificial intelligence world? No we can’t. Can we choose how to take advantage of this astonishing new world? Yes we can, with learning and empathy. Are you ready to play your part?

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