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Chinese Edtech Has No Reluctance with AI

By Henry Kronk
October 08, 2018
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Throughout the past year, Chinese tech startups have received encouragement via policy and financial support from their government in the development and use of artificial intelligence (AI) across sectors. Numerous Chinese edtech companies have recently announced successful development and further funding of their AI-powered education products. Meanwhile in the U.S. and elsewhere, AI education solutions have been determined ineffective by some tech leaders and remain highly unpopular with parents and other privacy advocates. 

In 2017, the People’s Republic of China unveiled their “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” The document calls for all out investment in AI, including in regard to edtech development.

According to a translation by China Copyright and Media, the government will “Utilize intelligent technology to accelerate and promote a personnel training model and reform teaching methods; establish new education systems, including intelligent learning and interactive learning.”

The document also logs the promise to “launch the construction of intelligent campuses; promote AI in teaching, management, resource construction, and other full-scale applications, and develop [a] three-dimensional integrated teaching field, based on big data, intelligent online learning, and education platforms,” and much more.

Chinese Edtech Has Exploded in 2018

While the above often leaves room for interpretation, the country’s investment in AI technology so far has been fairly explicit. According to the South China Morning Post, the investment in Chinese AI-focused companies now accounts for nearly half of all global AI funding. The U.S. is the runner up with 38%. China has also recently passed the U.S. when it comes to scientific research papers published and patents.

eLearning Inside has recently reported on numerous Chinese edtech startups using AI to personalize learning, take the place of teachers, and ensure quality instruction. Earlier this year, 17zuoye—which translates to Homework Together—reached unicorn status after raising $250 million in a round of investment led by Temasek Holdings. Homework Together software streamlines the homework distribution and grading process and uses AI algorithms to suggest areas of improvement.

Fellow unicorn VIPKid is also using a chunk of their latest $500 million Series D+ funding for development of AI instruction. They already use AI algorithms to determine learner engagement. According to VP of Technology Zhang Yanjing, speaking to the China Global Television Network earlier this summer, “Interactivity and involvement are crucial in online education. We developed a complicated algorithm to analyze students’ eyes and how they move. And we train the model through deep learning. Each student has different ways to express feelings, so the feedback could be very different.”

Liulishuo, an app developed by LAIX Inc., has already done away with human instructors for English language learning, delivering all content via AI bots. The company raised $71.9 million last week with their IPO.

GETChina Insights estimates that Chinese edtech companies raised an incredible $842 million in the first quarter of 2018 alone.

AI in the Western Hemisphere

This is not to say that U.S. edtech startups and others do not use AI for one purpose or another. Coursera uses an AI tool to track employee talent, the U.S. Air Force has begun to use AI to assist in flight simulator training, and Kadenze even uses AI to grade creative work. This list could be much longer. 

But to draw broad comparisons, U.S. startups generally back away from using AI to take care of the teaching itself, employing it instead as an aid to take care of more routine tasks. At many Chinese startups, meanwhile, it takes center stage. The concerns form a complex knot, and it isn’t easy to extract individual strings. But a few might be worry over data security (and the amount collected required for proper machine or deep learning), distrust of automation, the unknown potential effects on students, and a general fear of the unknown. 

The American and Chinese K-12 education systems make for an interesting comparison. Both countries have relatively high income inequality which generally follows a rural-urban divide. But while Chinese officials have pegged AI-delivered instruction as a means to deliver quality education where it is otherwise unavailable, the U.S. has taken the opposite approach, prioritizing quality and parental concern.

Featured Image: chuttersnap, Unsplash.