After no end of false starts, the technology needed for artificial intelligence is finally here. Over the past ten or so years, the amount of progress made in the field has been stunning, and already the technology is finding its way into a number of different industries. It’s already clear what benefits AI can bring to a range of different applications. The ability of computers to analyse data and draw conclusions means that it takes them fractions of a second to accurately understand any inputs. As a result, they can tailor the experience they provide, depending entirely on the user. This makes them particularly useful for education. One obvious shortcoming of a conventional educational experience is that the content used is invariably set out in a "one size fits all" approach.
Naturally, you can’t expect a textbook to be written with the individual student in mind. Similarly, in a conventional school environment, teachers are often forced to go at the speed of the slowest students. As a result, more capable students can find themselves learning very little, and becoming bored. However, the capabilities of AI within education are already promising a number of exciting innovations that can inherently change the way we educate ourselves and each other.
This is the most obvious innovation that AI within education promises. By being able to correctly analyse a student’s level, AI can tailor material for that student to ensure that they are dedicating their time to activities which are useful to them. As with so much of artificial intelligence, a huge amount depends on the capacity to accurately analyse data. What we term AI is essentially a combination of sensory input and swift analytical skills. When implemented in a classroom environment, what this means is that an AI program can potentially function as a one on one mentor with a student. While this is undoubtedly a major step forward, it may actually be worthwhile considering some of the drawbacks presented by this.
Ultimately, short of gearing everything towards some kind of edutainment slant, a computer program is never going to be able to hold a student’s attention in the same way that a capable teacher could. And while these kinds of programs certainly have a number of major benefits within the sciences, and possibly language acquisition, they are considerably lacking when it comes to arts and humanities. Ultimately, this is probably for the best. Already, enough in the world of education is regarded as simply learning facts for a final exam. Without actual teachers in the room, students are never going to get to experience the kind of back and forth and argument which is essential within the world of education. That said, given that many schools find themselves on the verge of failure due to an inability to invest in competent teaching staff, the availability of a highly rated AI program could be something of a game changer.
Artificial intelligence has a number of other handy applications within the world of education. One of the most obvious ones has been the synthesis of content for use within the classroom. Most education depends on textbooks, which are designed in a catch-all manner to address the needs of the average students. By their nature, textbooks have to be fairly compressed in terms of the information they offer. Most books are designed to be completed over a specific amount of time, and there’s little room for teachers to deviate from the material, or for students to remain on a topic if they fail to sufficiently understand it. However, there are certainly limits to the benefits a student will enjoy by going over the same material again and again.
With artificial intelligence, it’s possible for programs to synthesise new material related to a specific topic. As a result, students are able to pick which aspects of their course the want to focus on, and generate unique examples and exercises which allow them to get a thorough grip on the subject. Similarly, thanks to data analytics, the programs themselves are able to analyse the progress made by a student, and pinpoint any specific areas which need improvement. As a result, they can ensure that the student is provided with the exact material necessary for improving their own understanding of the subject.
While there’s been a certain amount of progress made in the above mentioned areas, the fact remains that when compared to other industries, the advances made regarding AI in education are not as great as one might hope for. Most of the applications found for AI innovation within education are as a result of research and funding being poured into other industries, with new technologies finding secondary uses within education. For instance, the UK startup DeepMind was recently purchased by Google. The company has now successfully created AI software with the ability to teach itself how to play 49 different retro video games. The software is so successful, it has a proven track record at beating human players. And Cornell University’s PR2 has shown an ability to learn, and then successfully teach its acquired information to other computers. The end results may not sound like a great deal, but the fact is, these are the initial foundations and small steps needed for artificial intelligence to become fully operational.
What is clear is that artificial intelligence is coming into our world in a major way. Most of the largest corporations have put a significant amount of investment into AI technology, and with more scientists than ever before pushing the boundaries, there’s no telling what they might achieve. Certainly, there are limits to the applications of AI within a classroom setting. And no matter how good things become, it seems hard to imagine a world in which human teachers have been completely replaced by software. That said, the further we push the technology, the more evident it becomes that it can offer students some real benefits. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for us.