Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, if not a hot new product itself, the additive that helps sell a million other products ("New! Improved!! Now with AI!!!"). And the proponents of AI are loaded with big brass cyberballs when it comes to making claims about their product. And all the most terrible and frightening things are happening in China. Come down this terrifying baloney-stuffed rabbit hole with me.
It starts with an absolutely glorious website-- PR Newswire. Newswire is part of Cision, a company that promises to move your pr by connecting using their Influencer Graph built with their Communications Cloud. Super social media PR (pr.cision-- get it?). Anyway, PR Newswire is a website of nothing but press releases, and it's kind of awesome. This news release has been run in many outlets. I'm digressing a bit here, but we need to remember through this whole trip that this is about a company that wants to sell a product.
Tucked in amidst the press releases is some "news provided by Squirrel AI Learning" about the AI Summit held about a month ago in New York, featuring over 350 experts, professors and business executives from the AI field discussing the technology and the commercial applications thereof. Why "squirrel" (there is such a thing as anti-squirrel AI)? Because squirrel is the symbol for "agility, diligence and management." Founded in 2014, Yixue Squirrel AI is headquartered in Shanghai and claims to be "the first K12 EdTech company which specializes in intelligent adaptive education in China" and, just so you know, they're "the market leader." They have opened "over 700 schools and have 3000 teaching staff in more than 100 cities." They have $44 million of investor money, an education lab in New York, and an AI lab in Silicon Valley run jointly with Stanford Research Institute, and they've sponsored some iNACOL stuff as well.
Do some quick math and you'll realize that those figures work out to 4.28 teachers per school. How do they do that? You can guess:
Like the AlphaGo simulated Go master, the AI system simulated human teacher giving the student a personalized learning plan and one-on-one tutoring, with 5 to 10 times higher efficiency than traditional instructions. YiXue Squirrel AI offers the high-quality after-school courses in subjects such as Chinese, Math, English, Physics, and Chemistry. Powered by its proprietary AI-driven adaptive engine and custom-built courseware, YiXue’s “Squirrel AI” platform provides students with a supervised adaptive learning experience that has been proven to improve both student efficacy and engagement across YiXue’s online learning platform and offline learning centers.
Simulated human teacher? Great.
There's very little about Squirrel on the English-speaking web that the company didn't put there themselves, and little of that dates to before 2018. But what they have to say about themselves is not shy. You can watch founder Derek Haoyang Li deliver his speech at the AI summit in December, in which he says, among other things, that his company's AI tutors outperformed even the best human teachers.
Squirrel's press release conjures up some of the most grandiose language I've seen for pushing new education ideas. You may think the stakes in education AI are just better education for students. Shows what you know:
To some extent, education must keep up with the development of AI technology, so as to ensure the historical status of mankind at the top of civilization.
I've seen education ideas marketed by invoking a nation's need to stay ahead of other nations. This is the first time I'm ever seen someone suggest that our primacy as a species is resting on how quickly we buy their product. Sadly, there is no suggestion about which species might replace mankind at the top of civilization.
Derek Li's keynote address was entitled "How To Give Every Child Adaptive Education." Spoiler Alert: the answer is not "by putting way more than 4.28 human teachers in every school"). After doing a quick "AI so far" bit, we go big once again:
The upcoming AI era, like the industrial revolution, will be one of the epochal events that can change the course of human history.
And then he ticks off the reasons. As is often the case, they say as much about the speaker's understanding (or lack thereof) of education as they say about his ability to oversell AI.
First, AI is "know-it-all." Examples? It can read a lot of books quickly and prepare for a debate on any topic. Which suggests that we're unclear on the difference between reading something and understanding it. But hey-- here's an explanation of education you might not have encountered before. Here's how the "know-it-all factor applies to education:
In terms of education, AI can break down and master all the nanoscale knowledge points, have a good grasp of the countless correlations between knowledge points, and provide "one-on-one tutoring" for thousands of students, which is an almost impossible task for human teachers.
So that's education. A bunch of knowledge points and map that connects them. Basically just building an html encyclopedia. I assume that somewhere in there will be the explanation of the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I mean, I am a big believer in the value of rich content, but that's because you need to know things in order to understand things-- but understanding and applying and using your insight to be more fully yourself, more fully human in the world-- that's the point. Not to just pile up a bunch of nanoscale knowledge points.
But this is one of the huge dangers of tech in education-- redefining education so that it fits what the software can do. Can AI cope with a thoughtful synthesis of understanding and insight expressed through a long, in-depth piece of writing? It cannot-- and so higher level operations simply disappear from the definition of education.
Second, "it can tell big stories from small things." We're talking about amassing huge amounts of detailed data here, like the way that "Netflix can detect the cognition and preference of every viewer from the data of every frame, and then find the logic of making and reshaping a film from the subtle differences."
I don't have enough space to plumb the depths of why this is a bad idea, but let me just note a few things. The way that food engineering has produced unhealthy food that trips our hardwiring. The way that social media have essentially unleashed psy-ops on users to create a virtual dependence. It may be that software can figure out how to push our buttons, but that's simply a process, and a process that has its own natural tendency to NOT play to the angels of our better nature. Squirrel plugs its own ability to figure out which knowledge points students have or have not mastered, but that completely skips the question of the validity of the whole knowledge points model and the huge HUGE question of who is going to decide what the knowledge points are, how important each one is, how it should be sequenced, how its mastery can be measured-- and whether or not all those questions should be answered by tech companies rather than educators.
Third, it has infinite computing power. Yes, I'm sure that's not hyperbolic PR baloney at all. What he seems to mean is that the computer can do many things very swiftly, and definitely faster than humans. It can play chess, and so it can "know the user profile of each student" in detail by carefully labeling each question. This is certainly a clerical job that computers can do quickly, but we need to be more careful in throwing around words-- a piece of software does not "know" a student any more than an old school filing cabinet filled with folders of student work "knows" those students.
Fourth, it's self-evolving. "Sunshine gathers, and light flows into my dreams," wrote Microsoft's Xiaoice. He calls that "a line of verse" and then says "although it has been criticized by many experts, it's better than 90% of what humans can do" and then I say, "Holy scheikies! Listen, Mr. Hard Data Guy, let me see your criteria for deciding that a line of poetry is "better" and then the methodology that allowed you to know what 90% of humans are capable of writing?! But this is ed tech at its ballsiest-- experts in the field we're disrupting don't know a damn thing; poetry is just some pretty words strung together and our word-stringing software is the bestest. He's not done bragging:
In the field of education, the evolutionary power of Squirrel AI is also amazing. It has skills that human teachers do not have. It can automatically help students make up their knowledge gaps and stimulate students' creativity and imagination.
Software now knows the secret of creativity and imagination. SMH. "Self-evolving" has been a moving target for programmers, but most often it means that it's just collecting more knowledge points and examples, which means it "learns" what is put into it, which is why facial recognition software works better with white guys and a previous Microsoft AI project called Watson didn't express poetry so much as it kept using the word "bullshit" inappropriately. (Can the word "bullshit" be used appropriately? If you are still reading this article, you don't really have to ask.) All the infinite computing power we've added hasn't changed the oldest rule of computing-- Garbage In, Garbage Out.
So what can they do? Let's introduce the section:
At present, auxiliary AI tools, such as pronunciation assessment and emotion recognition, cannot get involved in children's cognitive learning process. What parents are most concerned about is how a product can help their children to learn. AI+ education will eventually return to teaching and learning. Therefore, AI adaptive education is the best application scenario of AI+ education. Squirrel AI Learning has been in the forefront in this field in China.
Huh. I'm considering for the first time the possibility that this press release was written by an AI.
Oh hell-- Knewton is connected to these guys, via Richard Tong, who used to be the Asia Pacific tech director for Knewton. That's not good. Squirrel has also poached from RealizeIT and ALEKS. So that's who they've enlisted so far (spoiler alert: there's a surprise coming). What have they done?
First, super-nano knowledge point splitting. They broke a junior high subject into 30,000 knowledge points. And I'm thinking first, that's all? And I'm thinking second, so much for my question about whether we'd have tech guys making educational decisions.
Second, learning ability and learning method splitting to come up with "definable, measurable and teachable ability" theory. They've come up with 500, like learning by analogy or inference, which is apparently (honestly, this is hard to read) something Squirrel's AI tries to teach. And this-- "They also pay attention to the cultivation and promotion of students' creative ability." Says the guy who thinks "Sunshine gathers, and light flows into my dreams" is better than what 90% of humans could write.
Third, well... "they initiated the correlation probability of uncorrelated knowledge points. Squirrel AI builds correlations between knowledge points and uses information theory to test and teach students efficiently." I'm pretty sure he's just making shit up now.
Fourth, they came up with the "concept of map reconstruction based on mistakes." Squirrel AI will personalize learning plans for students "on the basis of finding the real reason for making mistakes," which is a hugely impressive feat of mind reading. I can believe they could handle figuring out which step in a math problem a student flubbed. I'm less confident they could, say, spot the source of flawed reasoning in an analysis of wheel imagery in MacBeth. And I'd be really curious, when it comes to writing or the humanities, how the software distinguished between "mistakes" and the "creative ability" they're careful to cultivate.
Fifth, they initiated a versus model. Somehow, by using Bayes' theorem, they "simulate learning and competition between students and teachers." Only simulate? And Bayes' theorem is about calculating probabilities-- is this supposed to be about beating the odds.
With these technologies, Squirrel AI can accurately locate the knowledge points of each student and continuously push the knowledge points most suitable to their intellectual development and learning ability according to each student's knowledge point mastery in the process of dynamic learning, so as to establish a personalized learning path for each student and enable them to learn the most knowledge points in the shortest time, putting an end to the "cramming model" and "excessive assignments tactic" in traditional education.
Maybe I'm not fully grasping the awesome here, but I'd swear that basically Squirrel has broken down education into a big list of competencies, and the computer keeps track of which ones the student hasn't checked off yet, and gives the student material to help fill in the blanks on the big list. Am I missing something?
Li saved a big announcement for late in the speech-- just in case you doubted Squirrel's clout, they have just hired Tom Mitchell, the dean of Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science, as their Chief AI Officer. So while you're processing the rest of this, you might also want to think about how thoroughly China is grabbing the reins on this emerging tech biz. Mitchell will lead a bunch of teams conducting "basic AI research in the field of intelligent adaptive education, as well as the development and application of related products." Because products.
To sum up its own awesomeness, Squirrel ends with
In addition, Squirrel AI Learning not only has mastered the world's most advanced technology, but also has greatly expanded its online + offline education retail business model nationwide. Online, Squirrel AI Learning gets traffic. Students receive one-on-one tutoring online. Different from other education enterprises, 70% courses of Squirrel AI Learning are taught and lectured by AI teachers. Human teachers are responsible for the remaining 30% of teaching for monitoring and emotional help. Offline, Squirrel AI Learning opens physical learning centers in the form of franchised chain centers, cooperative schools and self-run centers in various places.
They've mastered the world's most advanced technology. Nothing left to work on their, because it is mastered, baby. And in case you missed this before, let me point it out again-- "70% courses...are taught and lectured by AI teachers." Also, the retail of this business is going great.
In fact, Squirrel AI Learning's new education retail business model is also a reform of the traditional education model. On the one hand, Squirrel AI Learning not only has changed the traditional model of teaching by teachers, replacing it with teaching by AI, but also has realized intelligent management of students' learning. In the past, every student's data was opaque. Now through the Internet and AI, all students' learning process data and teaching data are collected, to provide better quality services for students. Transparent data management has changed the traditional offline education model.
No schools. No teachers. Just a highly lucrative batch of software and a mountain of Big Data on each child. And they are working on "testing brain wave patterns." Says Derek Li, man-god standing astride the great computerized colossus that can do everything and rule us all, next, "Squirrel AI will become a super AI teaching robot integrating personalized learning, dynamic learning objective management, human-computer dialogue, emotion and brain wave monitoring, to provide every student with high quality education and teaching services."
Let's hope that this misguided dystopic vision is just as bullshitty as it sounds. These are people who think a large hard drive stuffed with data points has been educated and that poetry has nothing to do with human experience and that education should be chopped down to fit the limitations of computers software. And these are people without an ounce of humility, absolutely confident that they are correct to commandeer and re-create an entire sector of human endeavor can make a buck. They have failed to answer two critical questions-- what can they do, really, and should they actually attempt to do it.