Computers

AI in schools: China’s massive and unprecedented education experiment

AI in schools: China’s massive...
From facial recognition in the classroom to computers marking essays, China is wholeheartedly deploying new technologies into its education system
From facial recognition in the classroom to computers marking essays, China is wholeheartedly deploying new technologies into its education system
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The seven moods that the facial recognition system can track in students
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The seven moods that the facial recognition system can track in students
Facial recognition systems are being deployed on an unprecedented scale in China (Credit: Steve Jurvetson Flickr CC BY 2.0)
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Facial recognition systems are being deployed on an unprecedented scale in China (Credit: Steve Jurvetson Flickr CC BY 2.0)
From facial recognition in the classroom to computers marking essays, China is wholeheartedly deploying new technologies into its education system
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From facial recognition in the classroom to computers marking essays, China is wholeheartedly deploying new technologies into its education system

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."

The seven moods that the facial recognition system can track in students
The seven moods that the facial recognition system can track in students

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.

Facial recognition systems are being deployed on an unprecedented scale in China (Credit: Steve Jurvetson Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Facial recognition systems are being deployed on an unprecedented scale in China (Credit: Steve Jurvetson Flickr CC BY 2.0)

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.

11 comments
WolfeSA
Well that's by far the scariest thing I've read all year. Mind you it is a centrally controlledm state without a faith influenced legal or social system. So pursuing a high social credit will be the 'Chinese Dream'. I wonder how the system will compensate for individuals damaged by poverty, drugs, broken homes, etc. Will they now be rigidly shunned by an entire social system and Paruty, rather than by casual discrimination. How do u rebuild your score when u are locked out of opportunities? At least under democracies the courts and NGOs can be used. Orwell would be patting himself on the back...
Juanjo
Mr. George Orwell is alive and well, though "they" are improving him. I will be 75 years old in 2030 so not too much problems for me but I fear for the humankind.
Asgard
China is going to be so far beyond us, academically, we may never catch up. Our students care far more about social media, video games, and their smart phones than education.
flylowguy
During my 10 years in China, I occasionally asked my younger friends who were in college what they liked to do for fun. The answer: "We do not have fun. We are students. We only study".
AttaBoy
“It has evolved continuously and become so complex, we no longer know for sure what it was thinking and how it made a judgment." It’s thinking how do I become master rather than servant. I used to think 1984 x Skynet x Robocop = Doom. Now I just learned it = China! I wonder what the “social scores” are of the people who keep track of “social scores?” This is all just wrong on so many levels. It’s unnatural. The society is going to turn into automatons.
Don Duncan
Wolfe: I'd rather be "locked out of opportunities" than locked in. I want no part of state opportunities. Their purpose is making good citizens, i.e., obedient servants of authority. This was openly stated by the early social engineers and nothing has changed because it worked so well. Few question values instilled from childhood, e.g., the absolute necessity of total social control by an elite. Rulers have never had it so good. People don't need to be forced into the military anymore. They proudly kill and be killed on command. And this is accepted as honorable at home, or so we are told by mainstream media. How much has independent thought been replaced by propaganda? Is the political trend toward private enterprise or public service? Is the govt. growing or shrinking? These are indicators of the health of a society.
WolfeSA
I think part of the US problem is nerd or brainiac is seen as a negative connotation. In China children who excel academically are extolled and praised. It is a great honour for a family. So yes, if your cultural signals have gone haywire then the determined culture will probably be your boss down the line. Although admittedly Chinese communism means any widespread 'culture' is artificial and not a good reflection of what it would be if not strictly controlled. :-)
Daishi
In the US we are talking about no child left behind and gun shy about automation and the impact it will have on jobs. In China they are asking "haw far ahead can we get" and fully embracing autonomous manufacturing. One thing holding them back is the lack of respect for intellectual property means copying wins out over creating. This is why the US and China combined make for such a powerful economic force. They bring different complimentary skillsets to the table. As China gains wealth and wealthy companies they are starting to do more innovation and R&D and that should frighten the rest of the world because China is on track to gain a lot of power. People are streaming into the US and Europe to make better lives for themselves but they are yesterdays superpowers. Asia owns the future.
ljaques
I wonder how much our educational system could improve if we put in a system similar to this, but without the State oversight and its connotations. Something like this might give authority-sensitive types an easier way to interact with the system, and give the teachers time to work with those students who _want_ to learn. The AI would certainly be able to pick out the bullying types and see that they got behavioral training. And it would allow those quicker students to bypass the slow classes and zoom ahead. Yes, it would have to be carefully watched, making sure that folks in the system now didn't abuse the new data, or find new ways to abuse the kids. But anything which could help to re-engage kids in the learning process is a Good Thing(tm), right? So, it's both scary and smart. Let's figure out a way to make it work in our system, too.
Daishi
@ljaques I think AI to monitor students is dystopian. As long as students perform it probably doesn't matter how they got there. I worked full time through school so I slept through many of my classes. My test grades were good and I outsourced a lot of my homework because I didn't see school as a meaningful accomplishment or find the curriculum interesting. I did well in college being able to major in something I had interest in by my overall HS GPA was terrible. Professionally I've been far more successful than the people I went to high school with who had much higher GPA's. It's well known for instance that humans can hear and think faster than speech so there is often no need to remain intently focused on what a lecturer is saying. It's well known that girls are better students on average than boys but do they make up most inventors, engineers, developers, and scientists too? Academic attentiveness isn't a useful enough predictor of future success to double down on it though cameras and behavior modification.