Can Bots Replace Human Teachers?

“You want to order another pizza?” I suggested.

Eric just shook his head. Something was obviously bothering him, and not even Flatbread Company’s pizza (quite possibly the best pizza in the known universe, or in Rhose Island) could provide him with some peace of mind.

“It’s the bot.” He finally erupted at me. “That damned bot. It’s going to take over my job.”

“You’re a teaching assistant.” I reminded him. “It’s not a real job. You barely have enough money to eat.”

“Well, it’s some kind of a job, at least.” He said bitterly. “And soon it’ll be gone too. I just heard that in Georgia’s Technological Institute they actually managed to have a bot – an artificial intelligence – perform as a teaching assistant, and no one noticed anything strange!”

“Yeah, I remember.” I remembered. “It happened in the last semester. What was the bot’s name again?”

“It’s Jill.” He said. “Jill Watson. It’s based on the same Watson AI engine that IBM developed a few years ago. That Watson can already have debates about current issues, conduct scientific literature reviews, and even provide legal consultation. And now it can even assist students just like a human teaching assistant, and they don’t even note the difference!”

“How can that be?” I tried to understand.

“It all happened in a course about AI, that Prof. Ashok Goel gave in Georgia Tech.” He explained. “Goel realized that the teaching assistants in the course were swamped with questions from students, so he decided to train an artificial intelligence that would help the teaching assistants. The AI went over forty thousand questions, answers and comments written by students and teaching assistants in the course’s forum, and was trained to similarly answer new questions.”

“So how well did it go?” I asked.

“Wonderful. Just wonderful.” He sighed. “The AI, masquerading as Jill Watson, answered students’ questions throughout the semester, and nobody realized that there’s not a human being behind the username. Some students even wanted to nominate ‘her’ as an outstanding teaching assistant.”

“Well, where’s the harm in that?” I asked. “After all, she did lower the work volume for all the human teaching assistants, and the students obviously feel fine about that. So who cares?”

He sent a dirty look my way. “I care – the one who needs a job, even a horrible one like this, to live.” He said. “Just think about it: in a few years, when every course is managed by a bunch of AIs, there won’t be as many jobs open for human teaching assistants. Or maybe not even for teachers!”

“You need to think about this differently.” I advised him. “The positive side is that there’s still place for human teaching assistants, as long as they know how to work with the automated ones. After all, even the best AI in the world, at the moment, doesn’t know how to answer all the questions. There’s still a place for human common sense. So there’s definitely going to be a place for the human teaching assistant, but he’ll just have to be the best as what he does: he’ll need to operate several automated assistants at the same time that will handle the routine questions, and will pass to him only the most bizarre and complex questions; He’ll need to know how to work with computers and AI, but also to have good social skills to solve difficult situations for students; And he’ll need to be reliable enough to do all of the above proficiently over time. So yes, lots of people are going to compete for this one job, but I’m sure you can succeed at it!”

Eric didn’t look convinced. Quite honestly, I wasn’t either.

“Well,” I tried, “you can always switch occupations. For example, you can become a psychologist…”

“There are already companies that provide psychological services on the internet, using text messages.” He said. “Turns out it’s really going well for the patients. You want to bet bots can do this too in a few years? So get ready to wave bye-bye at many of the human psychologists out there.”

“Or maybe you could become an author and write novels…” I tried to continue.

“An AI managed to write a novel this year, and it passed the first round in a Japanese literary competition.” He stated.

“Or write political speeches…”

“Computers do that too.”

“Ok, fine!” I said. “So just sell flowers or something!”

“Facebook is now opening a new bot service, so that people can open an online conversation with them, and order food, flowers and other products.” He said with frustration. “So you see? Nothing left for humans like us.”

“Well,” I thought hard. “There must be some things left for us to do. Like, you see that girl over there at the end of the bar? Cute, isn’t she? Did you notice she was looking at your for the last hour?”

He followed my eyes. “Yes.” He said, and I could hear the gears start turning in his head.

“Think about it.” I continued. “She’s probably interested in you, but doesn’t know how to approach.”

He thought about it. “I bet she doesn’t know what to say to me.”

I nodded.

“She doesn’t know how best to attract my attention.” He went on.

“That’s right!” I said.

“She needs help!” He decided. “And I’m just the guy who can help her. Help everyone!”

He stood up resolutely and went for the exit.

“Where are you going?” I called after him. “She’s right here!”

He turned back to me, and I winced at the sight of his glowing eyes – the sure sign of an engineer at work.

“This problem can definitely be solved using a bot.” He said, and went outside. I could barely hear his muffled voice carrying on behind the door. “And I’m about to do just that!”

I went back to my seat, and raised my glass in what I hoped was a comforting salute to the girl on the other side of the bar. She may not realize it quite yet, but soon bots will be able to replace human beings in yet another role.

 

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Why School Bullying Is About to Disappear

Cody Pines is a hero, no doubt about it. When a high school bully physically assaulted his blind classmate last week, Pines was the only one of the surrounding people to actually leap forward and try to stop the fight. Admittedly his methods were somewhat harsh (he smashed the attacker to the ground with one punch), but it’s difficult not to cheer for him when watching the movie. It takes courage to act, when everybody else is just watching or making a Youtube movie.

That said, this incident is just a reminder of what’s going on in our school system. We usually don’t see what’s happening during the break, when all the pupils are playing outside the classroom. However, as I think anyone who’s ever been to a school can testify, there are plenty and plenty of fights, bullying, hair-pulling and other violent acts. And if you want to see the statistics, here are a few data points, straight from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice –

  • In 2011, an astounding number of 597,500 students aged 12 – 18 in the U.S. were victims of violence at school. In 2012, this number rose to 749,200
  • In 2011, 18% of students reported that there are gangs in their school.
  • In 2013, in a nationally representative survey of students in grades 9 – 12, more than eight percent reported that they were involved in a physical fight in school during last year. More than seven percent mentioned that they missed one day or more of school because they were afraid for their safety. And a whopping number of 19.6% reported being bullied in school.

Those numbers mean that students in school experience or witness fights almost constantly. That’s not surprising, of course: taking hormonally-charged teenagers, forcing them to interact with each other, and then making them stay together in the same class or school is a recipe for frustrations, anger and even violence. Basically, we’re expecting kids to play Survivor or Big Brother without resorting to violence, when even adults are known to lose their calm in such environments. What did you expect would happen?

In the headline of this article I claimed that school bullying is about to disappear, but now’s the time to admit that this forecast is only half-true. I sternly believe that physical bullying is about to go down radically in this decade and the next, while bullying of all the other sorts – such as virtual bullying and non-violent bullying in general will remain the same or even increase.

Here’s why: we’re going into a new world – the Monitored World.

The Monitored World

We are rapidly becoming surrounded by sensors. Nearly all of us, in fact, have at least five sensors in our pockets, in the shape of a smartphone. These sensors include a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a recorder, a GPS, and perhaps most importantly: a camera. Suddenly, we are all able to record whatever we see out there, and using Youtube we can share our findings with the entire world.

As of 2014, according to Pew Research Center, 64% of all American adults own a smartphone. While I have not been able to find similar statistics for youths, it seems likely that a large part of them own a smartphone as well, or will own a cheap (but functional!) one in the coming years, as prices keep going down.

In this sort of environment, any irregular activity will be immediately shared with the online audience, and will be judged accordingly. That is the public’s justice system: fully operated by the public, which is a judge, a jury and occasionally a hangman as well. Such a justice system, however, only takes note when the incident is truly extraordinarily cruel – as in the case of the blind child being beaten up. Only in such cases will the clip become viral, create a public uproar and force the authorities into action.

This is the state of things today. But how will sensors look like in five, ten or even fifteen years from now? They will be smaller, cheaper, and much more abundant. In fact, several large firms like Bosch, HP and Intel forecast that sometime between 2017 and 2022, we will have a trillion sensors in the world, which is about one hundred times the number of sensors we have today.

T Sensors forecast
The Trillion Sensors Vision. Image originally from Motherboard

What will those sensors look like? The short answer is that we won’t really notice them or think about them anymore, simply because they’ll be everywhere. They will be in our shoes and in our shirts. We’ll find them on our skins as electronic tattoos (of the kind that are being in development today) and on our eyes as the new versions of Google Glass. They’ll sit on our fingers as rings and measure our heart rate, our perspiration level and the activity we’re involved in right now. And where do you think all of the data being monitored by these devices will be sent to?

Let me answer this question with a short story about the future. Your son has just been physically bullied in school. His sensors immediately alerted you that he’s in pain and was involved in a fight, and you made a call to the school to let them know that. And as every angry dad should, you also let them know that if it happens again and they don’t break the fight early enough – you’re going to sue them for negligence. And if they do fight, you’ll know it immediately.

Now what do you think the school is going to do? Some schools will separate the two kids for good, which is hardly practical. Other schools will make the angry father understand that they can’t be responsible for everything that’s happening on their property – and then they should be willing to defend that position in court. And other schools – the ones in Silicon Valley, most probably – will take an altogether different approach and require the students to share their sensors data with the school system, to be monitored constantly by an artificial intelligence that will alert a teacher on the spot when young hearts start pumping too strongly.

These new school systems will monitor their students at all times. And why shouldn’t they? Most schools are treating the children as prisoners in any case: forced to sit for hours upon hours in one room, hearing content they don’t want to learn. When schools are required to safeguard the children from violence, do you really think they’ll care for their privacy?

Will all bullying disappear altogether? Obviously, it won’t. Some forms of bullying will become virtual, and happen in closed groups where the teachers won’t be able to discern it. Other forms of bullying – for example, when a group of popular kids excommunicate a certain student – will not be stopped so easily.

All the same, the Monitored World will largely bring an end to physical bullying… and along with it, will bring an end to kisses stolen in the dark, to young (and too young) lovers in the school’s basement, to the smoking of pot and many other unsanctioned acts. That is the meaning of the Monitored World: a world in which we must think carefully of the rules that we set to people and to students, because they will be enforced constantly.

Is that a good thing, or a bad one? The jury is still out on that, but at least we won’t have blind students being punched in the school halls.