There’s been a lot of trumpeting among Silicon Valley types lately that bots are poised to be the “hot new thing.” Bots are, of course, a very old thing – at least in terms of “the digital age” – traceable to the earliest theorization of computer science. (See: Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950), for example.)

Back in 2012, I chose “Automation and Artificial Intelligence” as one of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” of the year. Perhaps I was four years early in doing so. Perhaps not.

Some of the arguments that you hear today about “the rise of bots” are that artificial intelligence – particularly natural language processing – has reached a point where “personal assistant” technologies like Siri and Alexa are viable (commercially viable). Maybe.

The sudden interest in bots by investors and entrepreneurs certainly overlooks the fact that roughly half the traffic on the Internet is already bots. We’ve already had to come up with “solutions” to this – filtering spam, filtering comments, blocking scripts, and so on. This new promise of bots seems to only see this technology as assistive rather than destructive. (Go figure.)

I’m interested in the implications for education, but I haven’t seen a lot of bot-talk in education (yet). The Verge did recently ask Bill Gates what he thought AI’s role would be in shaping the future of education. His answer was incredibly dull: something about “personalization.” He’s about as much of an expert on AI as he is on education, so there you have it.

I’m working on a history of chat-bots in education story because I do think what Gates et al call “personalization” is a lot like ITS (intelligent tutoring systems), many of which did feature “pedagogical agents,” like “personal agents” but for helpful hints on solving the next multiple choice problem.

We’ll see if this trend develops more. It’s one area in which venture capitalists are investing (in an otherwise dreary period for funding), so I do wonder if folks’ll pivot that direction just to follow the money.

Audrey Watters


Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016

A Hack Education Project

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