How the Cutting Edge Does Damage


An article on the AsiaOne website cites a news item that originally appeared in the Huaxi Metropolis Daily, reporting that “a robot is being designed to compete with 12th graders during the college entrance examination in 2017 and get a score qualifying it to enter first-class universities in China.”

Indeed, in the caption of the photo used as the featured image for this post, the robot is identified by name as “Humanoid robot Jiajia.” And near the end of the article, this robot and others are described as if they are students setting challenging personal goals: “The robot is reportedly trying to qualify for admission to Peking University and Tsinghua University in 2020, and its counterpart in Japan is eyeing Tokyo University in 2020.”

Lin Hui, Lin Hui, CEO of an artificial intelligence company in Chengdu, has announced that the “robot will sit three exams, namely math, Chinese and a comprehensive test of liberal arts, which includes history, politics and geography”: “Like the other examinees, the robot will have to finish the exams during designated periods. Unlike the usual scene that sees 30 students sit in an exam room, the robot will take its exams in a closed room without anyone else present, except for proctors and a notary. . . . The robot will be linked to a printer before every exam, and the electronic examination paper will be put into the robot’s programme when the examination begins. The robot will be totally disconnected from the internet and will solve the problems with its artificial intelligence programme. Finally the answers will be outputted through the printer.”

Lin has acknowledged that “Chinese and a comprehensive test of liberal arts, rather than maths, will pose challenges to the robot, since questions in maths are objective with specific answers, while in the other test subjects, there are some subjective questions, such as the reading comprehension and essay-writing.”

Lin has noted, however, that “robot writing technique nowadays has been increasingly mature. With key information words, a robot can write an economic news report following the widely-accepted writing mode in Silicon Valley, while nobody could tell it was written by a robot. . . . From this point of view, the robot can analyse the topic of the writing session and complete writing. Though the essay may turn out to be an emotionless piece, that slightly affects the grade.”

The obvious irony is, of course, that much of this news report reads as if it were produced by a robot, or by a digital translator. And who knows, perhaps it was.

I can understand why this sort of challenge would be enticing to developers of artificial intelligence, but having robots take the entrance tests blurs a very fundamental distinction between the robots and actual students: namely, even in the least ideal college classroom, students are in some sense actively engaged in the learning process whereas the robots are passively programmed by someone to simulate learning. We are still a very long way from the robots of science fiction who have become capable of independent thinking and real feeling. And that means that anything more than a primitive approximation of the very significant and complex emotional dimensions of learning is still a long way off.

So, these sorts of developments serve, both explicitly and implicitly, to reinforce several damaging but increasingly prevalent notions about higher education:

1. Education is treated as if it were an accumulation of skills, rather than the ability to imagine how skills might be applied in meeting needs and resolving issues. To provide just one very simple example, automation has now replaced many of the production workers in our factories, but there are still high-paying jobs for those who can maintain the robots, who can diagnose the reasons for malfunctions and make needed repairs, and who can program the robots to perform new tasks.

2. Knowledge is treated as the accumulation of information and processing of information. But knowledge is actually the ability to synthesize information in a meaningful way by recognizing subtleties and by recognizing connections that might generally be dismissed counterintuitive. Knowledge is the ability to engage in both critical and creative thinking—and, optimally, to do so simultaneously.

3. Language is treated as largely denotative when most communication is actually connotative. Likewise, although the worldwide reach of the Internet has made American English something close to a universal, standard language, there is much evidence that the variations in national, regional, and even local dialects of English are becoming more, rather than less, pronounced. So the demands on those communicating across geographic and cultural boundaries are likely to increase, rather than to decrease.

Indeed, the appeal—the political reach–of such damaging notions about learning will be all the more apparent if one considers how much faith has been put in the automation of teaching—in the idea that students can engage as fully and as effectively with a “digital learning platform” as with an actual teacher.


The complete article for AsiaOne is available at:



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