From Siri handling our schedules to smart cars driving themselves, artificial intelligence (AI) has turned our world upside down — except in education. Computers are trading on the stock markets for us, but our schools might as well be stuck in the 12th century. Children sit in the same orderly rows they have for centuries, learning Euclidean geometry while being bored to tears. Sure, modern students are glued to iPads, but technology hasn’t done much to boost their learning — at least not yet. The promise of AI might just be the long-awaited breakthrough that will change the way we all learn.
Just ask Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who claims to predict everything from how much money your children will make to how long they will live. She can forecast grades, even pointing to which questions they’ll get wrong on a final exam. No, she’s not wielding a crystal ball; instead, she has AI-powered software to study your child’s learning habits and social interactions through a combination of cognitive modeling and machine learning. Why all the Big Brother snooping? “Essentially, we’re talking about the same sorts of systems that beat the best poker players in the world … being repurposed to understand high school students,” says Ming, explaining how they will help today’s pupils build better futures. From AI systems that warn when and where a student will struggle to intelligent personalized tutors, here’s a glimpse of education’s future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ming: It’s a big ambition. Can we flip the model in which tech traditionally has been this big, cumbersome thing, and instead make it an integrated part of education? People are nowadays familiar with MOOCs [massive open online courses] and the kind of online lectures that are available. But what’s most exciting is the power of AI and design-centered learning. Say I’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and an AI that can help me monitor how each of them is growing while they’re naturally learning. I don’t have to wait to do a quiz or an exam; I can get insights about how the child is developing every day and make recommendations to parents and teachers based on that information.
There are people researching emotion-expression recognition and real-time video to see just when a teacher should intervene on someone who’s working on a design project. This is very different to what most people think of when it comes to education technology. Instead, this is technology that turns a home or a classroom into a cutting-edge learning experience. It’s less about understanding the course material and more about mentally growing the person — less about the tools and more about the craftsman.