I, Robot

Issue 81

If you ever worry about feeling sleepy when you need to stay awake, you could do worse than google ''Boston Dynamics'' and settle down to watch some of their videos - they are genuinely terrifying.

If you have never come across them before, let me explain. Boston Dynamics is a robotics company which has spent the last few years developing increasingly Terminator-like robots to perform functions which seem almost specifically designed to allow them to become our new overlords. Actions such as getting up off the floor after being knocked down, opening doors and running at high speeds, though mercifully not yet after their puny human creators, take on a rather sinister turn when performed by a robot which, without looking human, displays sufficiently anthropomorphic behaviour to provide an involuntary shudder.

Like it or not, robots and the cerebral equivalent, artificial intelligence, will take on an increased role in our lives. The rise of Siri and Alexa, as well as the increase in the Internet of things in the home and the gradual replacement by robots of humans in mundane repetitive occupations are as certain as night following day; to pretend otherwise is an error of Canute-like proportion. But what about the world of education? Will the classrooms of the future be taught by robots?

There are plenty of futurologists out there who will tell you that the future of education is just that. Personalised learning – youngsters sat in front of computers with videos, quizzes and tutorials which respond to the individual needs of each student – sounds marvellous. No need for teachers, who are hard to recruit and come with human foibles and frailties, when we have the infinite capacity of the Internet, coupled with sophisticated software which learns about the student the more they interact; it is hugely seductive as a learning concept. And, there are plenty of snake oil salesmen and women out there who are only too keen to persuade you that their particular learning environment or virtual classroom is exactly what you are looking for.

I have to say I am sceptical. For all of the advantages this brave new world promises, it can’t evade some simple home truths about children and schools. For me, expecting a virtual classroom to sufficiently educate a teenager, let alone a younger child, is the technological equivalent of issuing them with a textbook at the beginning of the year and telling them to go away, read the textbook and answer all the questions. It’s fine in theory, and fundamentally there is nothing intrinsically different between most online resources and a good textbook, but in reality it won’t work.

At the heart of teaching is the relationship between the pupil and the teacher. The teacher needs to know the pupil, have an awareness of their abilities and limitations and, crucially, be able to interact with the pupil in a way that a machine simply can’t. At the simplest level, kids need to be told what to do and stopped when they veer off task, but it is more than that too. In my subject, physics, the online world can provide some excellent simulations and videos, but it can’t cope with a pupil who says, ”But I just don’t understand.” Watching a video over and over is the equivalent just shouting louder when trying to order in a French restaurant: if they didn’t get you the first time, saying it over and over again isn’t going to work.

I’m not a luddite and the implications for education in less economically developed countries where teachers simply aren’t available could be genuinely transformational. But, for us luckily enough to be in a country which has a highly educated, professional and genuinely caring body of teachers, I don’t expect the robots to take over just yet.

Sign-up to our newsletter

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.