Raconteur | Alex Wood

As schools seek to raise standards, help could come from an unlikely source – a virtual teaching assistant packed with the power of artificial intelligence

Glancing around school classrooms in 2016, it’s easy to miss just how far technology has transformed learning over the last decade. The desks, whiteboards and rows of chairs are the same, but so much else has changed that can’t be seen.

A third of Britain’s schools are asking students to bring their own tablets and laptops into the classroom now, coding has been on the national curriculum for three years, and more and more education is happening outside school through apps and digital services.

But these changes are just the start. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next giant leap in learning and, according to those working in the field of education and technology, we haven’t seen anything yet.

“Some technologies in the field of education have had the potential, but not the ability, to deliver or transform,” says Ian Fordham, chief executive of Edtech UK, the strategic body for education technology in Britain.

“The recent developments in AI and machine-learning are a major exception with the potential to revolutionise how young people learn, teachers and tutors teach, and how society drives forward learning in the future.”

If you don’t think AI is poised to change your world, maybe you haven’t spotted the signs. It’s not just Apple’s Siri getting better at telling jokes or ordering you a taxi, AI is recommending what you should buy on Amazon, listen to on Spotify and even writing the news articles you read (but not this one).

Benefit to humanity

Last year a group of the most respected tech entrepreneurs, including Tesla’s Elon Musk and PayPal’s Peter Thiel, pledged $1 billion to the creation of OpenAI, a non-profit “friendly” AI to benefit all humanity.

This year Google’s DeepMind took on and beat the best human Go player in the world, and Facebook launched a virtual assistant, powered by AI, called M.

The sheer wave of investment and energy being poured into AI is undeniable and on par with mankind’s greatest endeavours – and now it’s coming into the classroom. First, forget any notion of robotic teachers. In fact, human teachers will be vitally important in rolling out and developing AI in education.

“AI will not replace tutors, it will support them and it will guide them to be better teachers,” says Tom Hooper, founder of Third Space Learning.

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