Is That “Teaching”?

A writer for The Guardian warns that artificial intelligence will be taking over many jobs that we previously assumed were safe from automation. Like teaching. 

Teachers: software such as McGraw-Hill Connect and Aplia allow college professors to manage the coursework for hundreds of students at a time. Massive open online courses (Moocs) extend their reach to thousands more. And actual physical robots are being used to teach English to students in Japan and Korea.

Which is all very nice if you start, as does this writer and many others, with the assumption that teaching is nothing more than the transmission of information. His sole example of MOOCs, in which college professors (more likely adjunct staff are doing the actual work) assemble a collection of readings and videos for students to consume in a specific order, is certainly all about presenting data for the invisible student on the other side to absorb.

But is that “teaching”?

Robot Driver1

Look through the listings at EdSurge and other sites documenting edtech and you find many startups working hard to incorporate artificial intelligence into their “personalized learning” software. Their systems, they say, will adapt to the student and allow them to “work at their own pace” on the computer, independent of a human instructor.

But is that “teaching”?

I suppose one response could be, does it matter, as long as the kids are learning? Maybe then we need to decide what we mean by “learning”.

Anyway, the writer also provides examples from other fields that, in the past, we’ve assumed required human interaction.

Journalists: AI bots created by companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already cranking out business and sports stories for clients like Forbes and the Associated Press. In a June 2015 interview with the Guardian, Narrative Science co-founder Kris Hammond predicted 90% of journalism will be computerized by 2030, and that some hardworking j-bot will nab a Pulitzer sooner than that.

Therapists: human-like “social robots” are already being used to help teach children on the autism spectrum appropriate social behavior. Therapeutic robot pets provide companionship for seniors with dementia. The US military is using a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen soldiers in Afghanistan for PTSD.

Actors: Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, thanks to some digital wizardry by Industrial Light & Magic. But he’s hardly the first human actor to have returned from the grave. Paul Walker, Audrey Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bruce Lee and Marlon Brando have all been digitally resurrected for use in films and commercials.

Are his anecdotes examples of journalism, therapy, and acting? Or, like teaching, is this how many people view those professions? As a mechanical process that can be replaced with a sufficiently clever algorithm?

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist,2 but I’d like to think that all of those professions, especially the art of teaching, will always require a human touch to do well. But if that aspect can be programmed into a robot or an AI system, it’s likely something that will come far in the future. Or a good science fiction story.

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