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“Eton for all”: will robot teachers mean everyone gets an elite education?

From Shakespeare holograms to mental health, how artificial intelligence could transform our schools.

There are a few certainties in this world: death, taxes, and that our jobs will eventually be taken by robots. However, some professions are under greater threat than others. Accountants and couriers should probably worry. But doctors and teachers will be fine, surely? Even the most sophisticated algorithm can’t capture the nuanced set of skills these professions require – compassion, common sense and emotional intelligence?

According to Sir Anthony Seldon, former headmaster of public school Wellington College and current vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, teachers might have reason to be concerned after all. Last month he said he believed “extraordinarily inspirational” robots would begin taking on the work of teachers over the next ten years.

“It will open up the possibility of an Eton or Wellington-style education for all,” he said. “Everyone can have the very best teacher and it's completely personalised; the software you're working with will be with you throughout your education journey.”

He said he expected teaching unions to be “alarmed” by the prospect, but that the impact would be “beyond anything that we've seen in the industrial revolution or since with any other new technology”. He does not believe teachers will be totally replaced by robots, but that the two will work together. Teachers’ roles will become more pastoral, less focused on the repetitive tasks of imparting information, testing and marking.

“I don’t believe that AI should replace teachers,” agrees Professor Rose Luckin, chair of Learning with Digital Technologies at UCL’s Institute of Education. “But I think that if we don’t plan for the oncoming AI revolution then there is a risk, that because of the massive shortage of teachers, that it will be seen to be an economically viable alternative to use artificially intelligent systems to do a significant amount of work that teachers do. I don’t think that would be a good thing.”

When we think of artificially intelligent teachers, we tend to picture a human-like physical robot standing at the front of the class. Such technologies are among those being developed, particularly for very young children. Pepper and Nao, two humanoid robots made by Japanese company SoftBank Robotics, were trialled in two Singapore pre-schools last year with encouraging results. Pepper was able to question children about a story they had just heard, for example, offering multiple-choice answers for them to select on a screen.

However, Luckin believes the first AI technology to be adopted by schools in the UK will be more similar to a chatbot application, or a virtual assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa that can recognise and respond to speech.

Such technology also already exists in the education world: Professor Ashok Goel, of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, managed to fool computer science students with “Jill Watson”, a bot who responded to their email queries about class assignments. Students could not tell the difference between “Jill”’s emails and those from real teaching assistants – although the impressive promptness of her responses aroused some suspicion. Goel gave a TED Talk about the project’s success.

Where AI really excels is in teaching Stem subjects such as maths and science, at least at school level. These tend to have a clear right answer, unlike subjects such as English where topics are open to different interpretations.

Will a robot ever be able to teach literature? “I think they can certainly support,” says Luckin. “It is possible now to capture a lot of data about people’s interactions with technology, but also as they’re wandering around in the world, so data about social media, about their physical wellbeing, about brain function. 

“That can be processed using AI algorithms to find out a lot more about that person’s emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, even cognitive wellbeing. And some of that could be used to engage students in some of those more subjective areas.”

Seldon himself agrees that AI’s potential goes beyond just basic maths and science. “I think it will transform Stem,” he tells the New Statesman. “In science, it will liberate young people to take part in experiments way beyond anything that we can do at the moment.

“But I think that social sciences will follow five to ten years later, and the arts and humanities ten to 15 years later, because there is learning which can be related by algorithms in the arts. 

“Young people will be able to look at a scene from Macbeth in three dimensions, see holograms of actors performing in the middle of the class. Machines will be able to ask probing questions of students to test their understanding of what's happening, and their responses, using voice recognition.”

This certainly sounds impressive. But can artificial intelligence really tackle the huge gap between the best and worst schools – or the state and the private sector – when this technology will undoubtedly be expensive to begin with?

“I think there will be [a gap between state and private] initially, and then I think there won't be,” says Seldon, whose upcoming book The Fourth Education Revolution explores the rise of learning with AI. “As we all know, new technology is very expensive because you're paying for the research and development and the uncertainty, [but] I think the price will come down very quickly.

“The software you'd be getting in a top grammar school or a top independent school would be the same as in the most deprived region of, say, rural Wales, or the north-west coast. Schools where they might find it hard to get the best maths and physics teachers.”

He continues: “Teachers will become much more the overall organisers, the explainers, and ultimate evaluators of progress. They will become pastoral leaders. A lot of the heavy lifting of the primary work of teaching will take place on a one-to-one instructional basis, between the individual and the machine. 

“At the moment we could do with about three times the number of teachers in schools… they are desperately short of time to do the job properly. They just get by. And so if we had computers doing a lot of the repetitive teaching work it would mean that teachers would be able to do the job so much better.”

He says experience from the US, where some of this technology is being developed, is that covering basic material on a computer using AI takes up around 30 per cent of a student’s day: “That leaves 70 per cent of the time for teaching staff to organise discussions, activities, one-to-one sessions with students, assemblies, cultural sessions.”

Luckin believes artificial intelligence could also help with an increasingly worrying problem facing schools: students’ mental health. A recent government-funded study found as many as one in four teenage girls now suffer from depression by the age of 14. “We could be building systems to help people understand themselves better – to see the signals of problems coming their way in terms of their mental wellbeing, and flag them up to somebody who can help them before it gets too bad,” Luckin says.

But of course, there are huge ethical concerns surrounding the collection of such sensitive data, particularly about children. “I think there is some great potential, but there is a huge risk that these things will be shot down before they have even started, because people understandably will be very worried,” Luckin adds.

The Samaritans caused controversy three years ago with a Twitter app aiming to monitor users for signs of depression through their posts. Samaritans Radar looked for phrases such as “tired of being alone” and “hate myself” among publicly available tweets. But critics said it was poorly designed and that vulnerable Twitter users could potentially be monitored without their consent, as anyone could sign up to receive an email alert when someone they followed was posting worrying messages. The app was later pulled.

Seldon describes the privacy concerns surrounding AI in schools as “massive”, adding: “Think about who knows you best. Now imagine this software is going to know you, certainly the cognitive tasks but also the emotional aspects, as well as the person who knows you best in life… I think we have to be very, very careful.”

Could the shift to learning from machines also harm the very human connection that exists between a teacher and a student? As teachers have something to gain or lose from a child’s success or failure they are motivated to push them academically – can a robot ever have the same effect? “I think that whereas the machines will be able to feign empathy in a very convincing way,” Seldon says, “the real emotional empathy will [still] be in the relationship with the teacher.”

“It's a fascinating space with huge potential,” Luckin concludes, “but it’s also a fascinating space with huge problems in terms of getting it right.”

Lizzie Palmer is the New Statesman's deputy head of production.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.