Xiaoice: the revolution just happened

7bab4aadae979479720a71bc699b945eIf you had to put one date on the Industrial Revolution, it would probably be 1776. This was the date when James Watt installed his first Atmospheric Steam Engine; an engine that for the first time did more work than the horses required to feed it with coal.

It changed everything. Industrialisation led to huge increases in personal wealth and opened new possibilities for ordinary people that even kings could not previously have aspired to.

James Watt’s engine came the better part of a century after the first steam engine patent had been issued (to Thomas Savery, in 1698), but looking back, we see this was the inflection point.

In the same vein, I nominate 2014 as the date of the computer revolution. Yes, 2014, just two years ago. Why? Because that is when an algorithm appeared that could by-and-large pass the Turing Test. It’s called Xiaoice and if you speak Chinese, you can try it out for yourself. The details are here.

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Xiaoice is a fictional teenage girl to whom you can chat at length on Weibo, China’s most popular chat platform. She’s not a perfect facsimile of a human, but to me that’s not the point. She’s a highly credible, automated, chat interface. And like Watt’s atmospheric engine, that changes everything.

The chat interface is the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle. We now have:

  • huge databases containing much of the world’s information in an organised format,
  • machine intelligence capable of extracting meaning from that data,
  • a natural, intuitive interface that allows us to access and utilise that meaning.

How does this affect you as a teacher? It will change what you teach, and how you teach.

The what

Albert Einstein famously asked why he should clutter his brain with information that was readily available from reference sources. The answer to that in 2016 is that whilst the reference source (Google) may well be in your pocket, you don’t necessarily know how to get to the information you need, nor interpret it appropriately to make an optimum decision. But what if you could chat to an expert in any topic, at any time? What if that expert could guide you intelligently toward the best decision – be it whether to dump the boyfriend, or how to build a bridge.

It gets harder and harder to justify teaching knowledge, but what that does is make space for higher-order learning. In particular, I see the opportunity for thinking skills to come to the fore.

The how

As long as Xiaoice and her inheritors are not allowed in exams, the traditional form of your job is remains fixed. When that changes, you must change too. In my view, young people are going to need adult contact as much as they ever did. They are going to need mentoring, pastoral support and the occasional chewing out. But the age of teacher-as-expert is over.

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