March of the Mediocre Softbots

A recurring theme in Robot Futures is that perfection is nowhere near required for new technologies to displace the dynamics of the current economy- and particularly us humans’ roles in it. Mediocre new AI and robot systems simply have to be good enough to be acceptable to some, and cheaper than present-day practices. These two qualities are all you need for a host of unfortunate consequences to rear their collective heads.  In Friday’s New York Times, John Markoff just published a story called Software Subs for Professors on Essay Test. In it, Markoff describes how instant-grading AI software from the company EdX will grade students’ essays on any subject instantly and without the teacher’s feedback. One interesting purported benefit is that instant feedback enables the student to quickly rewrite and correct his or her work.  Another related benefit: the AI system frees teachers for other tasks. A third benefit: in very large classes that are coming into vogue, individualized grading is not really practical. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, even says “learning turns into a game” when you use such computer response systems. So let’s review: we are going to have students write essays that humans don’t read, treat these essay-writing activities like computer games, and we are going to roll essay-writing students into classes so large that individualized attention is impossible.

Once again inventors prove that all inventions are not created equal. To his credit, Markoff identifies Les Perelman, a vocal critic of such automated grading; and yet researchers create a sense of embarrassment by stating that most critics of these systems come from high-end schools’ professors who are out of touch with how poor human grading really is today.  My opinion is that sophisticated statistical analysis of student essays, of the kind performed by AI programs, is incomparable to thoughtful comprehension and reflection of ideas that happens when a tutor and student forge a long-term, authentic intellectual relationship. To suggest otherwise is altogether absurd. And yet, as with any CNC milling robot, robotic soldier and assembly line robo-arm, no business owners are clamoring for perfection. The mediocre new AI robot simply has to be good enough for moderate acceptance, and far cheaper than the human alternatives. Achieve these two qualities, dear robo-inventor, and we can turn an old phrase on its head: good enough is the enemy of better for society.

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