Article as featured on Fanatical Futurist | September 2018
WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
AI, avatars and bots play an increasingly central role in the future of education, and Will is the first teacher of his kind
It’s back to school time for millions of children around the world and you know what that means – it’s time to fire up the tablet that teaches you. At least that’s what primary school students in New Zealand are doing after 125,000 of them have become the first students in the world to learn from an incredibly lifelike Artificially Intelligent (AI) digital avatar.
A few months ago Auckland energy company Vector teamed up with New Zealand AI company Soul Machines, whose complex deep learning based avatars I’ve discussed at length before, to create Will, a convincing and engaging digital teacher. And lest I remind you, when you watch the video below, Will is the first of his kind so you can expect him to improve very quickly as the technology advances. Will is now part of Vector’s “Be Sustainable with Energy” program which it offers free of charge to the schools it sells electricity to, and he, or maybe it, who knows… will be teaching the children all about sensible energy use.
The students will be fully able to interact with him on the device of their choice. Thanks to some impressive AI chops from Soul Machines, who specialise in “Human to AI” interfaces, it won’t be long until the students interaction with Will, from the way he speaks and his responses to his mannerisms, sound and feel “real.”
As you’d expect Will’s main skillsets at the moment center around different forms of renewable energy, such solar and wind, and he can also ask the students questions about what they’ve learned to make sure his “lessons” stick. According to Vector’s Chief Digital Officer, Nikhil Ravishankar, students seem particularly taken by Will, and when you see the video above it’s probably no surprise.
“What was fascinating to me was the reaction of the children to Will. The way they look at the world is so creative and different, and Will really captured their attention,” he said in a news release.
He went on to add, “Using a digital human is a very compelling method to deliver new information to people, and I have a lot of hope in this technology as a means to deliver cost effective, rich, educational experiences into the future.”
Ravishankar isn’t the only person who thinks bots, in this case in the form of AI software programs, will play an increasingly central role in education, many experts do too, as I highlight in my Future of Education 2020 to 2070 report.
It’s a well documented fact that many nations, particularly in the developing world, don’t have nearly enough teachers so bots like Will could one day help fill that gap. Compared to the cost of paying a human teacher, these systems are also far cheaper, they can scale to millions of students per avatar, and they can adjust to each student’s individual learning style, known as “Adaptive learning,” to help them reach their full potential.
While AI teachers could provide a host of benefits suffice to they still aren’t as advanced as they need to be. Will, for example, is only well versed on one topic, renewable energy, while quality teachers are typically far more well rounded. However, as we see advances in Artificial General Intelligence, like the one we saw recently, where AI’s become experts in multiple domains, over time this will become less of an issue. But social interaction between teachers and students is also critical to a quality education, and AI teachers most certainly lag behind their human counterparts in this realm, in fact, let’s face it – that’s an area where they simply can’t compete and won’t be able to for a very long time, even with the use of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to help them.
All that said though while Will might be the first digital teacher to hit the classroom he almost certainly won’t be the last. There’s a revolution coming.