Summary: With 850 million children worldwide shut out of schools, tech evangelists claim now is the time for AI education. But as the technology’s power grows, so too do the dangers that come with it
Original author and publication date: Alex Beard – March 19, 2020
Futurizonte Editor’s Note: Previous technologies (writing, printing press, earlier computers) already changed education. This time, we will see another change of global proportions.
From the article:
For a child prodigy, learning didn’t always come easily to Derek Haoyang Li. When he was three, his father – a famous educator and author – became so frustrated with his progress in Chinese that he vowed never to teach him again. “He kicked me from here to here,” Li told me, moving his arms wide.
Yet when Li began school, aged five, things began to click. Five years later, he was selected as one of only 10 students in his home province of Henan to learn to code. At 16, Li beat 15 million kids to first prize in the Chinese Mathematical Olympiad. Among the offers that came in from the country’s elite institutions, he decided on an experimental fast-track degree at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. It would enable him to study maths, while also covering computer science, physics and psychology.
In his first year at university, Li was extremely shy. He came up with a personal algorithm for making friends in the canteen, weighing data on group size and conversation topic to optimise the chances of a positive encounter. The method helped him to make friends, so he developed others: how to master English, how to interpret dreams, how to find a girlfriend. While other students spent the long nights studying, Li started to think about how he could apply his algorithmic approach to business. When he graduated at the turn of the millennium, he decided that he would make his fortune in the field he knew best: education.
In person, Li, who is now 42, displays none of the awkwardness of his university days. A successful entrepreneur who helped create a billion-dollar tutoring company, Only Education, he is charismatic, and given to making bombastic statements.
“Education is one of the industries that Chinese people can do much better than western people,” he told me when we met last year. The reason, he explained, is that “Chinese people are more sophisticated”, because they are raised in a society in which people rarely say what they mean.
Li is the founder of Squirrel AI, an education company that offers tutoring delivered in part by humans, but mostly by smart machines, which he says will transform education as we know it. All over the world, entrepreneurs are making similarly extravagant claims about the power of online learning – and more and more money is flowing their way. In Silicon Valley, companies like Knewton and Alt School have attempted to personalise learning via tablet computers. In India, Byju’s, a learning app valued at $6 billion, has secured backing from Facebook and the Chinese internet behemoth Tencent, and now sponsors the country’s cricket team. In Europe, the British company Century Tech has signed a deal to roll out an intelligent teaching and learning platform in 700 Belgian schools, and dozens more across the UK. Their promises are being put to the test by the coronavirus pandemic – with 849 million children worldwide, as of March 2020, shut out of school, we’re in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in the effectiveness of online learning.