Can computers ever replace the classroom?
Yet when Li began school, aged five, things began to click. Five years later, he was selected as one of only 10 students in his home province of Henan to learn to code. At 16, Li beat 15 million kids to first prize in the Chinese Mathematical Olympiad. Among the offers that came in from the country’s elite institutions, he decided on an experimental fast-track degree at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. It would enable him to study maths, while also covering computer science, physics and psychology.
In his first year at university, Li was extremely shy. He came up with a personal algorithm for making friends in the canteen, weighing data on group size and conversation topic to optimise the chances of a positive encounter. The method helped him to make friends, so he developed others: how to master English, how to interpret dreams, how to find a girlfriend. While other students spent the long nights studying, Li started to think about how he could apply his algorithmic approach to business. When he graduated at the turn of the millennium, he decided that he would make his fortune in the field he knew best: education.
In person, Li, who is now 42, displays none of the awkwardness of his university days. A successful entrepreneur who helped create a billion-dollar tutoring company, Only Education, he is charismatic, and given to making bombastic statements. “Education is one of the industries that Chinese people can do much better than western people,” he told me when we met last year. The reason, he explained, is that “Chinese people are more sophisticated”, because they are raised in a society in which people rarely say what they mean.
But it’s in China, where President Xi Jinping has called for the nation to lead the world in AI innovation by 2030, that the fastest progress is being made. In 2018 alone, Li told me, 60 new AI companies entered China’s private education market. Squirrel AI is part of this new generation of education start-ups. The company has already enrolled 2 million student users, opened 2,600 learning centres in 700 cities across China, and raised $150m from investors. The company’s chief AI officer is Tom Mitchell, the former dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, and its payroll also includes a roster of top Chinese talent, including dozens of “super-teachers” – an official designation given to the most expert teachers in the country. In January, during the worst of the outbreak, it partnered with the Shanghai education bureau to provide free products to students throughout the city.
Though the most ambitious features have yet to be built into Squirrel AI’s system, the company already claims to have achieved impressive results. At its HQ in Shanghai, I saw footage of downcast human teachers who had been defeated by computers in televised contests to see who could teach a class of students more maths in a single week. Experiments on the effectiveness of different types of teaching videos with test audiences have revealed that students learn more proficiently from a video presented by a good-looking young presenter than from an older expert teacher.
When we met, Li rhapsodised about a future in which technology will enable children to learn 10 or even 100 times more than they do today. Wild claims like these, typical of the hyperactive education technology sector, tend to prompt two different reactions. The first is: bullshit – teaching and learning is too complex, too human a craft to be taken over by robots. The second reaction is the one I had when I first met Li in London a year ago: oh no, the robot teachers are coming for education as we know it. There is some truth to both reactions, but the real story of AI education, it turns out, is a whole lot more complicated.