Why it's hard for AI machines to replace kindergarten teachers

May 14, 2019 18:29
A child interacts with a robot at the World Robot Conference in Beijing in August 2018. AI may replace top-down and spoon-fed coaching, but other models of teaching, particularly those that emphasize human touch, will remain in demand. Photo: CNSA

I had mentioned multiple times previously in this column about the possible implications of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and the resulting “Industrial Revolution 4.0”, for the job market.

Like I said in the past, once the technologies such as online tutorials and big data to track students' learning progress, as well as those pertaining to AI lectures and virtual reality (VR) teaching assistants, come of age, the conventional school as we know it is likely to be replaced, and human teachers who were trained under the existing bureaucratic system may need to look again to reconsider their role.

However, it doesn’t necessarily mean all human teachers are going to lose their jobs in the AI era.

What AI is likely to replace is the kind of top-down and spoon-fed teaching approach adopted by bureaucratic-minded teachers in conventional schools.

Other models of teaching, particularly those that emphasize human touch, are likely to stay and will be even more sought after.

Back in 2013, two academics with the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, carried out a study on how automation is going to affect human jobs.

According to their findings, the probability of kindergarten teachers being replaced by AI and automation only stands at 0.7 percent.

The result coincides with those of several other more recent studies of a similar nature, such as a list of projections published by Bloomberg in 2017 based on Frey and Osborne’s data, which said the kindergarten teacher is among the few professions that are least likely to be replaced by automation (i.e. 0.74 percent).

The Bloomberg projections were also echoed by another study conducted by McKinsey & Co in December 2017, which said kindergarten teachers are likely to be among the five most in-demand professions in the United States between 2016 and 2030.

So why won’t kindergarten teachers be replaced by AI? According to the joint study carried out by Frey and Osborne, a profession needs to command and demonstrate nine key skills in order to avoid being replaced by computers and automation.

These nine key skills are: 1. social perceptiveness; 2. negotiation; 3. persuasion; 4. assisting and caring for others; 5. originality; 6. fine arts; 7. finger dexterity; 8. manual dexterity and 9. the ability to work in a cramped space.

The job nature of kindergarten teachers appears to fulfill all these requirements. For example, a kindergarten teacher must have basic understanding of the ongoing social trend.

Moreover, a kindergarten teacher must stress his or her human touch in order to allow kids to feel that they are being given tender loving care, something that machines are unable to do yet.

Also, a kindergarten teacher needs to be dexterous in order to take care of fragile children. And they also have to be able to identify the personal uniqueness of each child using their own knowledge and experience in the absence of big data support.

As such, the McKinsey report concluded that given the global trend under which parents are relying increasingly on paid carers to take care of their children, kindergarten teachers would still be in great demand even in the age of the AI.

That reminds me of a letter recently written to me by an internet user, who introduced himself to me as a kindergarten teacher, telling me that the netizen was worried about career prospects in the new AI age, and feared that what had been learned may become useless in the coming days.

Well, the situation will be exactly the opposite. As far as kindergarten teachers are concerned, the AI age will actually come as an opportunity rather than pose a threat.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal