“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture.”      — Gianna Pomata, Institute of the History of Medicine, at Johns Hopkins University.


Pandemics force people to change how they think.  The Black Death, the third of three epic bubonic plagues, faded away in the middle of the 14th century, roughly coinciding with the intellectual revival of the Renaissance.  Gianna Pomata told the New Yorker:

“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

The Coronavirus pandemic is far from over.  Yet, it is not too early to question how our pandemic experience will change our economy, culture, and education.  Already, economic forces are lining up to take advantage of the school crisis: on-line education, artificial intelligence, and high-tech companies.  Even robots are powering up to enter classrooms.

We send robots into a burning nuclear reactor, or a battlefield cluttered with explosives.  Now, robots are being proposed to stanch the coronavirus meltdown.  In the coming months, robots may be deployed to assist teachers, even though 84% of K-12 teachers surveyed by Education Week in January 2020 did not believe that robot assistants would improve education.

Proponents of robots such as Varkey Foundation in London argue that robots are fully capable of teaching and understanding student emotions.  So, school superintendents might welcome robots for the same reasons that warehousing and manufacturing do: robots are cheaper than humans, they don’t unionize, and they don’t catch Covid-19.  These are the same reasons that South Korea, China and Japan continue to make substantial investments in robot teachers in humanoid form.

However, as Pomata points out, we need the “fresh air of common sense.”  We need to address the questions of robot and artificial intelligence in the classroom now, or we run the risk of letting temporary convenience drift into permanency.

Robots cannot replace human teachers.  However, robots can teach when the subject has definitive answers as found on standardized tests.  Robots cannot help students understand the nuances and complexities of human life.  Yet, teacher robots are called social robots, designed to be “user friendly.”  Social robots supposedly identify and simulate emotions from facial cues.  Robots can then fake emotions to provide appropriate interaction, such as comforting a crying child.  But the robot does not know the context of the crying: is the child sad, fearful, angry, frustrated, bored?

How can a robot effectively identify emotions?  We don’t even agree what the basic emotions mean.  “Angry,” “fearful” and “sad” are triggered by different experiences in different people.  Human experiences trigger multiple, complex, and sometimes conflicting emotions.  The happiness of love at the altar is different from the happiness of love at the 50th wedding anniversary.  Human facial expressions do not follow the universal patterns for a robot to know, according to research by Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University.

Children learn the twists and turns of human emotion at school with teachers and friends to guide them.  Learning to manage one’s emotions and relations with others is essential.  If robots provide the emotional education, how will students learn to develop human relations?

Additionally, robots have to be programmed.  An unknown computer coder somewhere feeds the data into the robot to determine its responses.  Both the data and the anonymous coder are possible sources of bias and flaws in the robot’s conduct.  Data passing through the robot also goes both ways.  In addition to inputs to guide behavior, robots will absorb boundless information about students.  Who controls that data?  Who will protect the privacy of children?

In China, robot surveillance “…is now being used to, for example, read face expressions to figure out if the student is having the ‘right’ attitude toward the school system and the teacher. It is really scary,” according to Jesper Tække, a Danish university professor.  Chinese schools use artificial intelligence to ensure that students pay attention.

It may seem obvious that teachers cannot be replaced by robots.  But the political pressure to cut costs in education will remain intense.  Robots will be seen by politicians as cost effective in the short term.  But robots will be far more expensive than teachers in the long run: we will pay the costs with a poorly educated society.

The fundamental, and most vital, relationship in education is teacher to student.  We need the fresh air of common sense to lead us into the post-coronavirus era: learning is the product of human interaction.