Metafocus: Why I Don't Want You to Know About Robo-Teachers

Meet Sophie.

Imagine it’s the year 2042. You’ve decided to change careers from toenail scrubber for the stars to underwater basket weaver. It’s a smart move, considering the sudden-yet-inexplicable rise in demand for damp artisanal baskets. But however will you learn this fulfilling new profession?

Perplexed, you ask your trusty mentor, Sophie. She has had all the right answers, in all the right ways, without fail, for nearly a quarter-century now. She asks you to don your virtual reality (VR) headset and haptic bodysuit, at which point she guides you into virtual experiences inside an underwater basket lab without having to pay the hefty price tag for practice time in a real underwater basket lab. She reads you chapters from the memoir of Jacque Bask-Ousteau, the world’s most talented aqua-weave artist. She patiently walks you through the fundamentals of basket weaving, scuba tank maintenance, and other necessary skills until you can craft a virtuoso damp basket from start to finish with your eyes closed. She points out particularly stunning basket examples as you walk down the street (and I mean a real street here) and discusses the finer points of basket construction. She senses when your attention lags and finds new ways to keep you engaged for the most efficient and effective learning as you go about your day.

You’re so grateful for Sophie’s wise guidance with acquiring this new skill set that you could just hug her. But of course, you can’t, because she doesn’t have a body. She’s an augmented intelligence, a personalized, artificially intelligent tutor that lives inside all your computers and gadgets, including your augmented reality glasses that you wear 24/7, your haptic onesie pajamas, and even your ever-so-useful smart toaster. She has an animated avatar and a soothing voice when needed, though sometimes she simply communicates with text or haptic feedback. She watches your every movement, analyzes your learning styles, accesses the massive orbital cloud server that stores all information compiled by humankind (formerly known as “Luna” or more colloquially as “the moon”), and coaches you to learn whatever you want to learn whenever you want to learn it, in highly personalized ways. She’s the nearly omniscient, mind brain education (MBE)-powered descendent of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, and Bixby, crossed with the best teachers you ever had. Isn’t she amazing?

Meanwhile, in 2017…

Unless you’ve been meditating in a dark cave for the past few years, or even if you have been meditating in a dark cave for years but have also religiously read this column (bless you!), you know that VR and its close cousins, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), are powerful new technologies that are (arguably) revolutionizing virtually (pun intended) every aspect of our lives, including how we learn. Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) also stands poised to intelligently (also intended) upend the way we do everything, including education. The combination of VR/AR/MR with AI is known as augmented intelligence and produces emergent properties that have the potential to augment the heck out of our educational system, more so than either individual technology could on its own.

What powers a robo-teacher? It’s its ITS!

One example of AI applications in education is an intelligent tutoring system (ITS). ITSs assist educators of all kinds with myriad tasks, including teaching remedial courses, responding to common student questions with chatbots, grading tests and papers, facilitating group projects, enabling self-paced learning modules, and much more. Mika, an ITS created by Carnegie Learning, saves many universities millions of dollars every year.

Imagine an AI that can do all that and has an avatar, has a voice, can type, can find and send you links and videos, and can be accessed by a learner at any time via a computer, phone, tablet, or AR glasses. I use the term “learner” here, instead of “student,” because learning and the technologies that support learning are not limited to formal schools and educational systems. Anyone can use AI, VR, and other technologies to learn whatever they please, even underwater basket weaving.

Perhaps the AI even has a virtual office or home in a VR environment. All this technology exists already, though most existing apps only consist of one or two of these features, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t all be rolled into a single educational augmented-intelligence ITS program, or robo-teacher for short.

Now add the next 25 years of improvements to AI and VR/AR/MR, and you get robo-teachers like Sophie. However, if Sophie still sounds too far-fetched for you, then let’s take a look at a couple of real-world examples of educational augmented intelligence in use today.

Virtual humans

The University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies has created what it calls virtual humans. These virtual humans look, communicate, and behave like real people as much as possible. Specifically, these characters would be autonomous—thinking on their own, modeling and displaying emotions, and interacting in a fluid, natural way using verbal and nonverbal communication.

The institute uses these virtual humans to create highly personalized learning experiences in various settings, including schools, museums, and healthcare facilities. The virtual humans “add a rich social dimension to computer interaction.”

In the Museum of Science, Boston, two virtual humans serve as virtual docents “designed to engage visitors and raise their awareness and knowledge of science.” In their first three years alone, 160,000 visitors voluntarily spoke to and interacted with the virtual docents, Ada and Grace (aka “the Twins”), via life-sized screens in the museum.

SimCoach is another of the USC institute’s virtual human applications. SimCoach similarly uses an empathetic virtual human to provide veterans and their families with information about PTSD and depression. SimCoaches (aka virtual humans) are accessed through AR, meaning they can be viewed and interacted with via computers and mobile devices, though it would not be difficult for the developers to add VR headsets to the list of supported devices as well. With the USC virtual humans software, veterans and their families can ask their SimCoach questions and seek guidance at any time of day. As a result, the veterans and their families feel supported at all times.

While these are just a couple of examples of educational uses of augmented intelligence, there’s already an entire industry working diligently to perfect augmented-intelligence technology: the video game industry. Video game companies create elaborate worlds, characters, stories, and player movement within VR. Simultaneously, these companies are continually developing artificially intelligent game characters with which players can interact in more and more believable ways. Although a vast majority of these games are created for entertainment purposes only, there’s nothing preventing serious or educational game developers from doing the same thing. Perhaps one day we’ll look back and wonder how educators were able to teach learners at all without the use of educational augmented intelligence.

“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. … Move along.”

If you read this far and are feeling inspired, please start building Sophie today. The technology it will take to build her already exists, the world needs her to exist, and untold numbers of people around the world would pay for access. It’s an idea that will forever change the world while earning its creators billions. Yes, billions with a B!

Wait a minute…

On second thought, maybe I’ll go build Sophie myself, so, um, never mind. Pretend you didn’t read this article at all. Don’t build anything, and definitely don’t build an augmented intelligence tutor or robo-teacher of any kind. Please proceed with your internetting, and have a good day.

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