AI in schools: China’s massive and unprecedented education experiment
In 2017, China revealed an ambitious masterplan to lead the world in both AI research and deployment by 2030. The roadmap not only looks to expand the country's research and development of AI technology, but to also find broad ways to implement its use across all sectors of society, from industry to urban planning. It has been revealed recently that several new technological innovations are now being tested in Chinese schools redefining how children can be educated in the 21st century.
While the broader deployment of facial recognition software in the West is mired in controversy over concerns of accuracy and possible racial bias, China is leaping forward in public implementation with several recent stories highlighting how authorities are making use of the new technology. A recent report from a state-run media source has revealed a high school in Eastern China is testing a new facial recognition system designed to analyze the engagement of students in a class room, in real-time.
The "intelligent classroom behavior management system," scans the room every 30 seconds logging both the behavior of the students and their facial expressions. The system can identify seven moods, including happy, sad, afraid and angry, by simply analyzing a student's face. A camera, perched atop the blackboard at the front of the classroom, also tracks six types of behavior: reading, writing, hand raising, standing up, listening to the teacher, and leaning on the desk.
It's unclear what the ultimate goal of the technology is, but Zhang Guanchao, the school's vice principal, is reported as saying the system is both helping track student attendance and assisting teachers in refining their teaching methods. While it is fair to say the technology could be incredibly useful in helping teachers optimize their classes to maximize student engagement, the system could easily be also used to surveil students and penalize those slacking off.
One student in the test school was reported as saying, "Previously when I had classes that I didn't like very much, I would be lazy and maybe take a nap on the desk or flick through other textbooks. But I don't dare be distracted since the cameras were installed in the classrooms. It's like a pair of mystery eyes are constantly watching me."
In an even more striking and widespread implementation of AI into the education system, a recent report from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) claimed one in four Chinese schools were experimenting with computer software to grade essays. The machine-learning software has allegedly been in development for nearly a decade using deep learning algorithms to constantly learn and improve its ability to understand and evaluate a student's work.
It's currently estimated that 60,000 schools are testing the technology and it can reportedly offer the same grade as a human marker up to 92 percent of the time. One researcher working on the project said to the SCMP, "It has evolved continuously and become so complex, we no longer know for sure what it was thinking and how it made a judgment."
Automated marking systems are not an entirely new idea. While computer-assisted marking software has been around for almost as long as computers, it has only been in the last decade or two that computers have begun to be used for marking more abstract student work, such as argumentative essay writing. Debate in the West rages over how appropriate machine grading systems are, despite accuracy reportedly improving to impressive levels. But in China these systems can be implemented with degrees of scale that are unprecedented anywhere else in the world.
China is currently training its neural network grading system in a central server that compiles the work of millions of students. As well as promising a potential way to take out the variations attributed by human subjectivity in marking, this system undoubtedly offers the central government a remarkable ability to track the progress of all students in the country, in real time.
And this frighteningly comprehensive monitoring of its education system could inevitably be synced up with the country's oncoming "social credit system" due for full activation by 2020. This proposed system will assign each citizen with a social credit score that will determine a person's ability to travel overseas, get a home loan, or even access the internet.
Social credit scores can fluctuate based on how well a person abides by what the government deems to be good social behaviors. The system has been tested in a number of provinces for several years and one school was recently reported as banning the enrollment of new students whose parents have low social credit scores.
It's not hard to imagine a system where many of these new school-based AI technologies become integrated with the soon-to-be-widespread social credit system. China's insistence on integrating AI systems into its entire social ecosystem with no push back or oversight from independent bodies turns the entire country into a massive social experiment. How the experiment will turn out is anybody's guess, but its goal of becoming a world leader in AI by 2030 is certainly achievable … for better or worse.