Learning is a cornerstone of society, and today it is going through transformational change. Decreased funding, instructor shortages, and learner needs growing more complex have created a globally-fractured education system. Add in a global pandemic and we’ve created a perfect storm for much-needed reform.

The lockdowns in response to COVID-19 have interrupted learning and development. At the height of the pandemic, 1.6 billion students worldwide were affected as schools moved to online distance learning with no warning or preparation. This pandemic has exposed the many inequities in our global education system; access to the internet, computers needed for online learning and the supportive learning environments needed. In the US alone, over one-third of learners have been completely excluded from online schooling, particularly in schools with large shares of low-income students, while elite private schools experienced almost full attendance (The Economist). We need a plan. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is part of the answer.

The opportunities of AI to support this ongoing education crisis is critical and far-reaching. According to a study conducted by Microsoft and IDC, 99.4% of educational institutions have said that AI would be “instrumental to their institution’s competitiveness within the next three years”, with 15% calling it a “game-changer.” A majority are starting to implement solutions as well — with 92% of respondents saying that they’ve started to experiment with AI technology.

According to JRC Science for Policy Report, AI can 1) enable new ways of learning, teaching, and education, and 2) increase the efficiency of learning. Since antiquity, humans have known that the best education is delivered one-on-one. We learned very quickly that it was expensive, labor-intensive and hard to scale, so we’ve settled for classroom-based instruction and have done so for centuries. AI has the power to change all that.

Humanized AI As a Solution

It’s a well documented fact that many nations, particularly in the developing world, don’t have nearly enough teachers. Our company, Soul Machines, recognizes this global crisis and is using AI-powered Digital People to help fill that gap. Our company is the pioneer of astonishing Digital People with a patented Digital Brain that contextualizes and adapts in real time. Digital People are scalable, emotionally-responsive, and multilingual. Much like a real teacher, they respond to your body language and have the ability to adjust to each learner’s individual learning style, known as “Adaptive learning,” to help students reach their full potential. Additionally, they can scale to millions of learners per Digital Person and can successfully replicate 1:1 instruction. The same can be said for any institution performing online instruction, including corporate learning, employee development, and workforce upskilling. With most institutions going online and learners setting their own hours, we foresee our technology really thriving in this sector. We have only begun to see the benefits of Humanized AI in learning and development and the results are very promising.

A powerful new way to learn

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125,000 Kiwi students became the first in the world to experience learning from a Digital Person named Will. This was part of Vector Limited’s ‘Be Sustainable With Energy’ campaign, a program for Auckland elementary schools through the partnership of the New Zealand-based electricity and gas company and Soul Machines. Will taught primary school students about energy use, and the different forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal.

Vector’s chief digital officer, Nikhil Ravishankar, said, “What was fascinating to me was the reaction of the learners to Will. The way they look at the world is so creative and different, and Will really captured their attention.” The students loved learning from Will, and through our autonomous animation technology, can replicate the movements and mannerisms of a human teacher. “He’s there, looking at us, like a real human,” a student says with a smile. Will is able to instantly react to the students’ responses to the topic. Thanks to a webcam and microphone, the avatar not only responds to questions the kids had, but can also pick up non-verbal cues. For instance, if a student smiles at Will, he responds by smiling back. This two-way interaction not only helps capture the students’ attention, but also allows the program’s developers to monitor their engagement, and make changes if needed.

Interactive learning in the form of a Digital Person is the catalyst in transforming the education sector by tapping into millennial, Gen X and Y’s comfort around digital media. With Soul Machines’ Digital People, learners gain access to a digital teacher who looks and behaves like a human, is available 24/7, and is pushing the boundaries of education by interacting with students through engaging face-to-face learning. They can be programmed to deliver content in a way that draws in students who previously struggled with more academically-focused teaching techniques. Best of all, this technology is accessible to everyone with a Wi-Fi connection.

Digital teachers are unlikely to replace flesh and blood teachers any time soon, but we see education as a key benefit of our technology, and we’re only getting started.