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Why There's Nothing Cool About Lectured By a Robot at Uni

Universities are experimenting with teaching by holograms and robots, but this would probably just screw over actual human academics.

by Tom Whyman
23 November 2018, 12:18pm

Professor? (Photo by Flirk user Rachel Docherty, CC BY 2.0)

Robots: pretty soon, they're not just going to be killing us. They're also going to be teaching us why killing is wrong.

Last month, Axios reported that Bina48, an artificially intelligent robot who had previously completed a college course on the philosophy of love, had successfully co-taught two sections of an "Introduction to Ethics" philosophy course at the US Military Academy, West Point. With the assistance of two West Point professors, William Barry and Scott Parsons, Bina48 was able to address a class of almost 100 students, “answer[ing] questions and reply[ing] with nuance.” “The most interesting thing,” Barry said, “was that [the cadets] were taking notes.”

So are robots the future of higher education? Possibly – except maybe holograms will get there first. A few weeks ago, Imperial College London demonstrated the use of hologram technology at a Woman in Tech event. This technology, which is similar to that used to revive the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley for stage shows, will soon be rolled out across Imperial's business school, allowing lecturers to deliver instruction from wherever they are in the world. But why stop there? Why not bring famous dead thinkers like Stephen Hawking, or Isaac Newton? Why would students want to be taught by some no-name physics professor they've never heard of, when they could be being lectured to by someone they've seen Benedict Cumberbatch play in a film?

I suppose on a certain level these technological possibilities are supposed to sound fun and cool. Hey, guess what! You could go to class and be taught by a robot, and later maybe you'll get to attend a meeting with your tutor who's being beamed in live from a city on the moon. But does anyone really think tech is likely to liberate us anymore? Hasn’t bitter experience taught us otherwise?

Tech is already pretty controversial in higher education. Lecture capture technology – the recording of lectures for students to listen back to later – is already common across British universities. Usually, it is sold as a way to improve accessibility for disabled students – and certainly, it can be a big help. But I've often heard academics privately grumbling about the technology eroding attendance at lectures. Still worse, it has been proposed by management as a way of “limiting disruption from” (i.e. breaking) academic strikes – lecturers' plans to protect their pensions could be foiled by a bunch of obsequious machines. This offers us at least some indication of how universities might use AI and hologram technology in practice.


Watch: Uber Drivers Already Share the Streets with the Robots That Will Replace Them


What do universities want? Two things: to make money from students, and to make money from research. From 2020, to continue to charge the highest fees institutions will need to do well on the government's “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF). That ranks universities according to things like how well they do on student satisfaction surveys, and how likely graduates are to get a job afterwards.

Universities also need to do well on the government's “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) which rewards universities financially for research they've already done. They also want their star researchers to attract large grants from prestigious funding bodies and partners in industry. Of course, this often means giving staff research leave – which means they can't do as much teaching. The more that members of staff get big research grants in any given department, the more students will be taught by inexperienced, overburdened “Teaching Fellows” on insecure contracts. As you might imagine, this can feed back into the TEF kind of badly.

Technology might offer universities a chance to reconcile these two broad and sometimes conflicting motivations of making money out of students and making money out of research. Firstly, robots/holograms could make it easier for research staff to honour their teaching duties. A big, star-name professor might spend the bulk of their time flying around the world from prestigious speaking engagement to prestigious speaking engagement. Previously, this would have meant they couldn't also give lectures at their home institution – but now they can, by hologram. Afterwards, the seminar could be given by a robot, pre-fed data from the lecturer's notes and papers, to answer any student questions just as the lecturer would. This would be a lot cheaper and more convenient for departments otherwise forced to rely on some precarious early-career fill-in.

Secondly, some students might like the holograms/robots more. Prospective students could be attracted to an institution where they know a robot will be teaching – they might, wrongly, think it is cool. The West Point candidates certainly seemed to find Bina48 interesting and engaging enough (although some did comment that she struggled to keep pace with the rest of the class).

And of course, again from a management perspective: you don't have to pay a robot a wage.

When it comes down to it, the use of AI/robot/hologram technology in higher education is likely to do what basically all technology does nowadays, i.e. help the people already rich and in power make even more money, and gradually tighten the past's dead grip over the present, ultimately conspiring to eliminate the “future” that technological progress is usually thought to welcome. The possibility of receiving a diverse, critical education would be undermined and the already bleak job prospects of early-career academics would be worsened even further. Academics should prepare to resist it.

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