Tyrades! Goodbye, Mr. (Computer) Chips

Friday, July 23, 2010

If you felt nervous about "new math," phonics, or No Child Left Behind, the Next Big Thing in education is really going to rattle you.

According to the New York Times, a robot teacher may be in your future. Scientists in labs around the world are racing to develop robots that can teach household tasks, simple skills, and vocabulary. South Korea has purchased hundreds of robots to act as teachers' assistants, classroom playmates, or English teachers.

The designers say they have neither the intention nor the know-how to replace human teachers with robots, but with today's rapid technological advances and school boards' desire to trim personnel costs, I suspect they paint an overly rosy picture.

I admit I have a vested interest in this. My wife is a college instructor and we attend church with several elementary school teachers. I would hate for these flesh-and-blood educators to be displaced by robots -- and then forced to take career retraining courses taught by robots. ("Please wait while I download my Rubbing Salt In Their Wounds software.")

21st century mankind has some really weird priorities. We tout "authentic Mexican food," "organic fertilizer," and "real fruit pulp" -- but then consider entrusting our precious little ones to teachers with "100 percent of the Minimum Daily Requirement of artificial intelligence"!

Scientists aspire to make robots that accumulate knowledge and adapt to new situations. But these conglomerations of wires and chips will never be as good as human teachers. If a real live teacher gets caught using embarrassing Eighties slang, he can adapt by shifting seamlessly into embarrassing Nineties slang.

Multiple problems will arise if robot teachers become widespread. School principals will be tied up with false alarms. ("Go to home room, people. No one was caught smoking in the boys' room. It was just Mr. Roboto experiencing a short circuit.") Spanish class will be slanted toward the teacher's selfish needs. ("Forget the casa de Pepe. I wanna know 'Donde esta electrical outlet de Pepe!'") Students will find that even mechanical instructors can experience queasiness. ("If you'll turn to Chapter 2 of your sex education book, you'll see that humans...EWWWWWW!") Pupils will find it hard to respect discipline from electronic teachers. ("Were you raised in a barn, young man? No, seriously, were you raised in a barn? My programmers forgot to load that information about young humans...")

I realize we already have children being "raised" by TVs and video games, but the notion of youngsters receiving their formal education from robots portends a whole different plateau of social upheaval. Students look to their teachers for their aspirations, their sense of right and wrong, their problem-solving skills. What will become of humanity after two or three generations of kids receive training based on the convictions of far-away programmers? ("A friend offers me some illicit drugs? Kill a software pirate! The boss's wife flirts with me? Kill a software pirate!")

I'm not going to panic. In another 20 years things will even out. ("I've called this special meeting of the school board to pat ourselves on the back for our efficiency in replacing frail human teachers with...What? What do you mean we're being replaced with robot school board members? Who would do something stupid like that? The robot voters???? Wonder if Pepe has any room left in that casa???")

Note: Danny Tyree welcomes e-mail at tyreetyrades@aol.com.