Should the real debate be about robots in education?

by on July 18, 2017 at 12:48 am in Education, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit from it:

In a recent Financial Times interview, Sherry Turkle, a professor of social psychology at MIT, and a leading expert on cyber interactions, criticized robot education. “The robot can never be in an authentic relationship,” she said. “Why should we normalize what is false and in the realm of [a] pretend relationship from the start?” She’s opposed to robot companions more generally, again for their artificiality.

Yet K-12 education itself is a highly artificial creation, from the chalk to the schoolhouses to the standardized achievement tests, not to mention the internet learning and the classroom TV. Thinking back on my own experience, I didn’t especially care if my teachers were “authentic” (in fact, I suspected quite a few were running a kind of personality con), provided they communicated their knowledge and radiated some charisma.


My biggest concern about robot education, by the way, involves humans. Children sometimes trust robots too much. Teachers and administrators could use robots to gather confidential information about children and their families, as the children may think they are talking to a robot only, rather than creating a database for future scrutiny. This could be addressed by comprehensive privacy standards, probably a good idea in any case.

Do read the whole thing.

1 Ray Lopez July 18, 2017 at 2:12 am

Well if TC is mildly autistic, don’t all people come across as robots? I’m taking the role of prior_approval here…

2 Ray Lopez July 18, 2017 at 2:15 am

From TC’s Bloomberg column: “Though the American unemployment rate is less than 5 percent, there is nonetheless a skills gap, and our schools are underperforming: Isn’t this the actual AI debate we should be having?” – no, because if you adopt AlexT’s “all education is signaling” then after lerning the 3 R’s in grammer school, all of us are ready to enter the world of work. No need for further higher education.

3 prior_test3 July 18, 2017 at 2:20 am

No, you are not. I may use an adjective like grandiose to describe a certain type of writing/opinion style, but since I do not know Prof. Cowen, I have absolutely no framework in which to judge him, apart from what he writes.

And since you are extremely unlikely to actually know him either, you have no idea what sort of person he is, apart from what he writes. (Though for all I know, you have listened/watched him online – I haven’t.)

Besides, I would include a link or two, with some excerpted text, if you were to even pretend take on my role.

4 Anonymous July 18, 2017 at 9:54 am

lol, do you think people behave like robots?

no, the challenge is grasping the very strange and obvious non-robot behavior.

did everyone buy their “fidget spinner?”

5 Anonymous July 18, 2017 at 9:58 am

Though perhaps if anyone answers “fidget spinners because ‘utility'” that guy is a tad autistic.

6 Chip July 18, 2017 at 2:44 am

This doesn’t seem to be a well-reasoned argument.

First, she argues that robots lack authenticity.

“The robot can never be in an authentic relationship,” she said. “Why should we normalize what is false and in the realm of [a] pretend relationship from the start?”

But then they’re too authentic.

“Children sometimes trust robots too much.”

And finally the limp conclusion that if teachers ever abused their position to acquire info on parents, the problem is the tool they use and not the people wielding it.

“Teachers and administrators could use robots to gather confidential information about children and their families, as the children may think they are talking to a robot only, rather than creating a database for future scrutiny.”

In any case, the arbiter of moral behavior by a teacher (or robot) isn’t the children themselves. It’s the parents who would eventually find out. As it is now.

7 Anonymous July 18, 2017 at 3:41 am

Lingo about “normalization” implicitly assumes that the thing being normalized is attractive but harmful. She wouldn’t warn against “normalizing” them if she thought they aren’t convincing in the first place – they are, so they have to be tabooed. So her authenticity objection refers more to something like “but it’s not a REAL relationship” (this phrasing has baggage but is the easiest way to dispel the ambiguity this professor introduced with her own word choice).

I think when people start arguing about whether something is a true real member of a category, their main objection is actually something else that they can’t phrase or don’t even realize. Maybe she feels queasy about robots. Maybe she doesn’t like a future where people don’t talk to each other in favor of robots. Maybe something else.

Incidentally, how can a professor of social psychology be a “leading expert on cyber interactions”? Does she help design the interfaces?

8 FXKLM July 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

One is from Sherry and one is from Tyler.

9 Thanatos Savehn July 18, 2017 at 2:59 am

Those of us who fancy we’ve sired little Alexander the Greats can go online and give our sons (and daughters) the gifts of Parmenides, Zeno, Archimedes, Euclid, Plato and especially Aristotle. The rest are stuck in failing government schools that function no more and no less than a patronage system for underachieving white progressives with education degrees. I think we all know how this will end, robots or no.

10 Thor July 18, 2017 at 3:41 am

You can lead a child to Ancient philosophers but you can’t make them think.

True then, true now. And true no matter who — or what — does the educating.

11 Rich Berger July 18, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Excellent work, gentlemen.

12 dearieme July 18, 2017 at 6:03 am

I’d be more interested in the views of Sherry Amontillado. Or Brandy Greekle.

13 matt July 18, 2017 at 6:04 am

Education is an inherently social endeavor. Robots can indeed “store…vast troves of knowledge”, but that’s not the majority of what teachers do. The fact that some teachers shade from classroom management to bullying is not a demonstration that human teachers are bad, but that providing that social framework is a hard problem. Robots are being proposed as a tool for teaching introverts precisely because they’re not perceived as human. While that may make sense for a small part of the population (not those that might prefer more impersonal learning, but for whom the lack of socialization is an acceptable price to pay).

AI will almost certainly replace humans in areas that humans understand best, whether because there are written rules (i.e. chess, law), or solvable physics (driving, mechanical tasks).

14 rayward July 18, 2017 at 6:13 am

“Thinking back on my own experience, I didn’t especially care if my teachers were “authentic” (in fact, I suspected quite a few were running a kind of personality con), provided they communicated their knowledge and radiated some charisma.” I’m pleased Cowen included this sentence in his blog post, because it is the sentence that jumped off the page when I read his Bloomberg column yesterday. It reveals more about Cowen than his teachers: namely, Cowen my prefer robots, but only because he doesn’t seem to care for the real thing. In an interview about his book, Cowen as asked how he ended up attending GMU rather than a higher ranked college he could have attended. His answer: GMU didn’t have dorms at the time and, so, he would not be required to live in one and have roommates and hall mates that didn’t share his preference for being let alone. What’s odd about this is that Cowen can be charming (anyone who has seen his Conversations knows what I mean). I suspect it has something to do with Cowen’s intellectual and social superiority (over other people not robots). David Brooks’ column today, about the French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, is about social inequality. Brooks applies the phenomenon as a way of understanding Trump. Here’s a quote from the column: “People at the top, he [Bourdieu] observed, tend to adopt a reserved and understated personal style that shows they are far above the “assertive, attention-seeking strategies which expose the pretensions of the young pretenders.” People at the bottom of any field, on the other hand, don’t have a lot of accomplishment to wave about, but they can use snark and sarcasm to demonstrate the superior sensibilities.” I assume that with robots there is no competition for social status, and no need for dorms.

15 rayward July 18, 2017 at 6:27 am
16 Thiago Ribeiro July 18, 2017 at 6:37 am

Fo be frank, I find it sad that Americans are herded into dormitory rooms as if they were cattle. It is sad, too, that Americans like their teachers so little that they want to replace them with unthinking and unfeeling machines.

17 matt July 18, 2017 at 7:01 am

Honestly, living with a stranger, and in a community of strangers, is a life skill. Like interacting with teachers and classmates, it tends to be painful for introverts. However, those introverts will eventually live in a world dominated by extroverts, so it’s probably most useful for them.

A better Bourdieuian reading of Cowen’s college experience is that he lacked the social skill to live with other people in close quarters, and that cost him social status associated with attending a more prestigious university.

18 Thiago Ribeiro July 18, 2017 at 7:25 am

“However, those introverts will eventually live in a world dominated by extroverts, so it’s probably most useful for them.”
Most of them will not have to share a bedroom with perfect strangers. Education should be about educarion.

19 Thiago Ribeiro July 18, 2017 at 7:25 am

* education

20 anomdebus July 18, 2017 at 12:47 pm

* educarrion

21 Lanigram July 19, 2017 at 1:34 am


Lol! I AM educarrion!

22 Daniel Weber July 18, 2017 at 10:32 am

Forced socialization is the best socialization for introverts. If something doesn’t work, shrug, it wasn’t my fault, I was forced into it.

23 Peldrigal July 18, 2017 at 12:57 pm

And it’s thanks to living in dorms that the college-educated population of the USA is so well adjusted, capable of social interaction, and accepting of diversity.

24 carlospln July 18, 2017 at 5:06 pm

Americans hate all workers-not just teachers.

Automation über alles!

25 rayward July 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

If education is partly about socialization, it seems that it’s not working very well today, as the iGen is, well, anti-social. Maybe socialization comes with age and maturity, but one has to be concerned about what’s happening to the iGen on college campuses: are they learning lessons that can’t be unlearned? Robots, I suspect, aren’t offended by words and don’t construe words, no matter how offensive, as violence. Should colleges replace professors and administrators with robots?

26 rayward July 18, 2017 at 8:50 am

The linked article was co-written by Jonathan Haidt, which may induce more readers to go to the link.

27 Thiago Ribeiro July 18, 2017 at 9:35 am

America must focus in rigorous education or it will not be able to compete wirh Red China, Taiwan, South Korea and the top European powers.

28 msgkings July 18, 2017 at 12:46 pm

Not needed to outcompete Brazil of course, since you didn’t mention it.

29 Evans_KY July 18, 2017 at 6:28 am

AI learning would be advantageous for geographically isolated children where vouchers and charter schools are unrealistic.

Two additional concerns: the discernment algorithm and hackability.

30 jseliger July 18, 2017 at 9:12 am

I didn’t especially care if my teachers were “authentic” (in fact, I suspected quite a few were running a kind of personality con),

Yes. And I’d argue that they’re responding to the market (of sorts). Many students prefer that teachers and professors lie to them (for some values of “lie”) and in the K – 12 level many parents do. Students sense this and it makes many of them cynical (for good reason).

Originally I thought I would never do such a thing, but then I realize that ninety-five percent of students are fine, but that last five percent can be dangerous. So now I teach more defensively than I once did.

31 TMC July 18, 2017 at 10:52 am

That was a good link. You hit the nail on the head with that.

32 msgkings July 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm


33 Ryan Bourne July 18, 2017 at 9:23 am

This seems to be a good example of an area where the precautionary principle leading to delay could actually harm the technological growth rate if we think of growth in a Solow-Swan model.

34 Hazel Meade July 18, 2017 at 9:32 am

What kind of robots are we talking about? I think a humanoid robot would be an incredible waste of resources. But if you’re just talking about something like having an Alexa in the classroom, I’m sure there’s a role for something like that.

Also, children need caretakers as well as teachers – especially in grade school. The robot would have to know when a seven year old is upset and know how to calm a crying child down. Not likely to happen. I doubt that would ever be cost effective compared to just hiring a human.

I’m inclined to agree with Turkle that robot companions are a terrible idea, although I’m just not worried about it because I don’t think humans will ever find robot companionship really satisfying. Video games, on the other hand, not to mention the internet, seem to work pretty well. The future we should be afraid of is the one where kids spend all day long staring at screens without every speaking to each other in real life.

35 Peldrigal July 18, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Have you EVER been calmed by a teacher in grade school?
I have traumatic recollections of grade school teacher, and I would have traded them with robots in a heartbeat.
Heck, I would have traded them for a pile of books and another of standardized tests.

36 Mark Thorson July 18, 2017 at 6:24 pm

There’s the problem. We have to work out the problems of disciplinary robots first in an simpler and controlled paradigm — in the prisons. Only after working out all the bugs there do you move on to the tougher problem of classroom discipline. It’s a tougher problem because you have fewer tools at your disposal.

37 Careless July 18, 2017 at 11:13 pm

until, lacking adults, the bullies beat the shit out of you and you realized “oh, they’re not always completely useless”

38 Anonymous July 18, 2017 at 9:35 am

“A big debate today is how we can teach ourselves to work with artificial intelligence, so as to prevent eventual widespread technological unemployment. Exposing children to robots early, and having them grow accustomed to human-machine interaction, is one path toward this important goal.”

Won’t work, anymore than videogames taught American children mathematical logic. What will actually happen is the teachers, and government/quasi-governmental workers throughout the economy, will never be replaced with robots even if it becomes quite feasible to do so, because of their political power. Lots of people who are woke on the likelihood of automation seem blind on this issue, assuming that automation will be a meritocratic tide lifting all (highly skilled with STEM type skills) boats and sinking the dullards, when in reality, those most protected from it will be those who work for the government, math rarely necessary.

39 Anonymous July 18, 2017 at 10:02 am

Another anon here. I am fine with RCTs and robot programs optimized for ROI and value added.

I would prefer too that there be 1000 flavors rather than one. If say Apple’s Siri was chosen to teach an entire generation I would consider that extremely risky. Bad. Don’t do it.

40 Mark Thorson July 18, 2017 at 6:40 pm

Yes, that’s right. If somebody can get better results cheaper, send part of the business there. Just get the parents of the ones sent to me to sign the authorization forms for the shock collars.

Yeah, my son’s a bad dude. Maybe a year at the Thorson School will shape him up. Heck, I’ll even sign the Level 11 authorization.

41 Edgar July 18, 2017 at 10:51 am

That ship has sailed. Children already use a wide variety of learning apps from math to languages. In addition, many kids take online courses such as those available through Marginal Revolution University. Curiosity is the only limit to the range of knowledges, skills, and abilities that can be acquired outside a classroom. And it is a beautiful thing to see so many learning related meet-up groups in which people come together and mutually benefit through voluntary interaction. The column assumes that we still need classrooms. The real question is whether that is a valid assumption. Related suggestion: How about a Conversation with Tyler with Luis von Ahn, the Guatemalan entrepreneur and associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University who founded reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009, and who then co-founded Duolingo, the world’s largest language-learning online platform with over 120 million users in 19 different languages. My hat is off to this great man who didn’t sit around and wait for permission, but instead made world-changing things happen.

42 Bill July 18, 2017 at 11:28 am

Do you realize that when you post your comments, using a typewriter keyboard and the connected internet, you are talking to a machine and not a person in real time. Every day you talk to inanimate objects programmed to respond to your inputs.

But, I haven’t met a machine yet that I would like to go out to dinner with.

43 mulp July 18, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Where are the robot CEOs and capitalists?

If Elon Musk were to invent them in a battle with Jeff Bezos to buys competing robots, they will control the biggest engines of zero profit exponential growth, driving down prices, and thus profits to zero, so no wealth will be created without paying every penny of money these robots can get control of to workers building ever more stuff.

Elon fears robots that implement free market creative destruction on people, killing off the 10% least profitable people every year, eventually reaching Harlen Ellison’s nightmare, (“I have no mouth, but I must scream”) .

44 FYI July 18, 2017 at 4:14 pm

Why would only robots be able to achieve this extreme creative destruction? I mean, CEOs and governments today could justify doing the same thing. If we are not able to add moral preferences in robots (something we can do obviously) we would have much bigger problems to deal with.

45 Pava Renat July 18, 2017 at 7:37 pm

What? It seems to me that the American education system, from kindergarten through PhD, is already taught by androids, regurgitating the stuff they’ve been programmed to spout out. Independent and critical thinking not encouraged! Conformity and discipline rules! Learning by rote is Power! I say, let’s get the androids out of all our educational establishments.

46 The Lunatic July 18, 2017 at 8:40 pm

“Authenticity” is a pure status good; Sherry Turkle’s comments shed far more light on the psychology of her social class than on whether robot teachers are a good idea. A low-income inhabitant of an African city doesn’t care that his shirt celebrates the “2016 World Series Champion Cleveland Indians” and was dumped cheap because it was printed in advance of the Cubs’ victory; he doesn’t have the money to care about much beyond how good a shirt it is, and maybe whether the design was more pleasing than the “Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl LI Champions” shirt. And the mother of a son in Detroit doesn’t care if his teacher has an authentic relationship with him, if the robot is a better teacher than someone who barely limped through college in the easiest major and then was marginal enough to have to settle for a job at the most desperate district in the state and is sheltered by the union from firing for incompetence.

47 educationrealist July 18, 2017 at 10:53 pm

1) Our schools aren’t underperforming.

2) Most kids have no interest in learning. Robots can’t handle that.

3) Teaching is an extremely difficult job with no how-to manual, and no definition of what’s “good”. Programming is impossible.

Jseliger–interesting, but in my experience most teachers are authentic to a considerable degree.

48 msgkings July 19, 2017 at 11:25 am

+1, teaching is one of the service jobs that are probably robot proof. In fact, with declining birthrates and robots taking away many other jobs, I can see a future where most kids are taught one on one or in small groups by private tutors. Already upper middle class and above kids have plenty of extracurricular tutoring, with humans. Eventually the tutors will be the main path to education, and socializing kids will happen another way.

49 educationrealist July 19, 2017 at 2:50 pm

You overestimate the degree to which kids are getting tutored and no, they won’t ever by the main path to education.

50 Shaun Marsh July 20, 2017 at 9:00 pm

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