The long read: With 850 million children worldwide shut out of schools, tech evangelists claim now is the time for AI education. But as the technologys power grows, so too do the dangers that come with it
For a child prodigy, learning didnt always come easily to Derek Haoyang Li. When he was three, his father a famous educator and author became so frustrated with his progress in Chinese that he vowed never to teach him again. He kicked me from here to here, Li told me, moving his arms wide.
Yet when Li began school, aged five, things began to click. Five years later, he was selected as one of only 10 students in his home province of Henan to learn to code. At 16, Li beat 15 million kids to first prize in the Chinese Mathematical Olympiad. Among the offers that came in from the countrys elite institutions, he decided on an experimental fast-track degree at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. It would enable him to study maths, while also covering computer science, physics and psychology.
In his first year at university, Li was extremely shy. He came up with a personal algorithm for making friends in the canteen, weighing data on group size and conversation topic to optimise the chances of a positive encounter. The method helped him to make friends, so he developed others: how to master English, how to interpret dreams, how to find a girlfriend. While other students spent the long nights studying, Li started to think about how he could apply his algorithmic approach to business. When he graduated at the turn of the millennium, he decided that he would make his fortune in the field he knew best: education.
In person, Li, who is now 42, displays none of the awkwardness of his university days. A successful entrepreneur who helped create a billion-dollar tutoring company, Only Education, he is charismatic, and given to making bombastic statements. Education is one of the industries that Chinese people can do much better than western people, he told me when we met last year. The reason, he explained, is that Chinese people are more sophisticated, because they are raised in a society in which people rarely say what they mean.
Li is the founder of Squirrel AI, an education company that offers tutoring delivered in part by humans, but mostly by smart machines, which he says will transform education as we know it. All over the world, entrepreneurs are making similarly extravagant claims about the power of online learning and more and more money is flowing their way. In Silicon Valley, companies like Knewton and Alt School have attempted to personalise learning via tablet computers. In India, Byjus, a learning app valued at $6 billion, has secured backing from Facebook and the Chinese internet behemoth Tencent, and now sponsors the countrys cricket team. In Europe, the British company Century Tech has signed a deal to roll out an intelligent teaching and learning platform in 700 Belgian schools, and dozens more across the UK. Their promises are being put to the test by the coronavirus pandemic with 849 million children worldwide, as of March 2020, shut out of school, were in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in the effectiveness of online learning.
But its in China, where President Xi Jinping has called for the nation to lead the world in AI innovation by 2030, that the fastest progress is being made. In 2018 alone, Li told me, 60 new AI companies entered Chinas private education market. Squirrel AI is part of this new generation of education start-ups. The company has already enrolled 2 million student users, opened 2,600 learning centres in 700 cities across China, and raised $150m from investors. The companys chief AI officer is Tom Mitchell, the former dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, and its payroll also includes a roster of top Chinese talent, including dozens of super-teachers an official designation given to the most expert teachers in the country. In January, during the worst of the outbreak, it partnered with the Shanghai education bureau to provide free products to students throughout the city.
Though the most ambitious features have yet to be built into Squirrel AIs system, the company already claims to have achieved impressive results. At its HQ in Shanghai, I saw footage of downcast human teachers who had been defeated by computers in televised contests to see who could teach a class of students more maths in a single week. Experiments on the effectiveness of different types of teaching videos with test audiences have revealed that students learn more proficiently from a video presented by a good-looking young presenter than from an older expert teacher.
When we met, Li rhapsodised about a future in which technology will enable children to learn 10 or even 100 times more than they do today. Wild claims like these, typical of the hyperactive education technology sector, tend to prompt two different reactions. The first is: bullshit teaching and learning is too complex, too human a craft to be taken over by robots. The second reaction is the one I had when I first met Li in London a year ago: oh no, the robot teachers are coming for education as we know it. There is some truth to both reactions, but the real story of AI education, it turns out, is a whole lot more complicated.
At a Squirrel AI learning centre high in an office building in Hangzhou, a city 70 miles west of Shanghai, a cursor jerked tentatively over the words Modern technology has opened our eyes to many things. Slouched at a hexagonal table in one of the centres dozen or so small classrooms, Huang Zerong, 14, was halfway through a 90-minute English tutoring session. As he worked through activities on his MacBook, a young woman with the kindly manner of an older sister sat next to him, observing his progress. Below, the trees of Xixi National Wetland Park barely stirred in the afternoon heat.
A question popped up on Huangs screen, on which a virtual dashboard showed his current English level, unit score and learning focus along with the sleek squirrel icon of Squirrel AI.
India is famous for ________ industry.
Huang read through the three possible answers, choosing to ignore treasure and typical and type t-e-c-h-n-o-l-o-g-y into the box.
T____ is changing fast, came the next prompt.
Huang looked towards the young woman, then he punched out e-c-h-n-o-l-o-g-y from memory. She clapped her hands together. Good! she said, as another prompt flashed up.
Huang had begun his English course, which would last for one term, a few months earlier with a diagnostic test. He had logged into the Squirrel AI platform on his laptop and answered a series of questions designed to evaluate his mastery of more than 10,000 knowledge points (such as the distinction between belong to and belong in). Based on his answers, Squirrel AIs software had generated a precise learning map for him, which would determine which texts he would read, which videos he would see, which tests he would take.
As he worked his way through the course with the occasional support of the human tutor by his side, or one of the hundreds accessible via video link from Squirrel AIs headquarters in Shanghai its contents were automatically updated, as the system perceived that Huang had mastered new knowledge.
Huang said he was less distracted at the learning centre than he was in school, and felt at home with the technology. Its fun, he told me after class, eyes fixed on his lap. Its much easier to concentrate on the system because its a device. His scores in English also seemed to be improving, which is why his mother had just paid the centre a further 91,000 RMB (about 11,000) for another year of sessions: two semesters and two holiday courses in each of four subjects, adding up to around 400 hours in total.
Anyone can learn, Li explained to me a few days later over dinner in Beijing. You just needed the right environment and the right method, he said.