Are children ready for a world where artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed human society? This is precisely what Singapore-based ChildFirst Pre-school, a part of Ednovation, aims to ensure with its innovative robotics and coding e-curriculum.
"During the Industrial Revolution, machines amplified and augmented our muscle power. As a result, we can outrun any animal. We can even fly without wings. We can lift weights heavier than elephants. These are things that we have all taken for granted and we only notice them when they malfunction. In the AI revolution, intelligent machines will amplify and augment our brain power. We will be able to think better and faster, access all human knowledge instantly, and be more creative and productive. This will be the biggest impact of AI on society," Ednovation Founder Dr. Richard Yen told Digital Life Asia.
AI and robots
A Harvard-trained PhD scientist-turned-edupreneur, Yen has made it his mission to innovate education to future-proof children – by introducing AI and coding at a young age.
ChildFirst prides itself in being a trilingual school, with trilingual referring to English, Chinese, and coding – the language for AI and robots. Since 1991, Ednovation has been pioneering the use of technology in education, as one of the first preschools to introduce computer-based learning. They now have over 70 preschools across Singapore, China, and ASEAN, and their proprietary EdnoLand eCurriculum is used across hundreds of preschools in the region.
"I believe the holy grail of AI in education is to provide a personalized tutor for each and every child. No matter how small a class size in school, it can never achieve a 1 to 1 ratio. Furthermore, an AI personalized tutor is available 24/7 and is infinitely patient! Even if we can find such human tutors, what will be the cost? AI is scalable. In fact, the larger the volume, the lower the unit cost. This will be the ultimate education opportunity equalizer for society," he said.
By incorporating a robot into the lessons, ChildFirst's students gain a deeper understanding of how to apply basic coding concepts and problem-solving skills. For instance, they were able to apply this knowledge to invent a hand sanitizer robot.
The school also allows children to gain access to the world-renowned ScratchJr programming language developed by MIT, to create their animated stories and simple games.
What are the different ways in which Ednovation is preparing children for the future?
"We are preparing our children in our pre-schools (Cambridge, ChildFirst, and Shaws) for the AI future in multiple ways," Yen said.
First, they are using AI as tools.
"We believe ChatGPT is such a powerful learning tool that we must introduce it to our preschoolers. During the process, we realized that ChatGPT is difficult for young children to use because they cannot type and spell. Therefore, we have developed EdGPT, an educational version of ChatGPT that interacts with children via speech. You can try it at www.EdGPT.io. We are making this publicly available as young children are naturally curious and ask a lot of questions, but unfortunately most of the time, their curiosities are left unanswered. Over time, they may stop asking questions, which would be a shame. We hope EdGPT can help to preserve children's natural curiosity," he said.
Yen said the school is also using AI as tutors.
"We have developed a program to provide a personalized tutor for each child. AI cannot replace teachers but can be a very good assistant to provide a 1 to 1 personalized revision for each child. An example will be our AI Chinese and AI Maths applications where words and concepts that your child is less familiar with will appear more frequently every time your child plays the game-based activities to reinforce their learning. Therefore, children playing the same game will each encounter words and concepts unique to his/her revision needs. We can also generate reports to show exactly which words or concepts your child recognizes and track your child's learning history and progress. It is no longer a guessing game of what your child knows," he said.
Not only that, but also AI is also a tutee of the children.
"We teach children to code to control a robot. In this case, your child is the tutor (teacher) and the robot is the tutee (student) executing what your child instructs it to do! Children love this because how often do they get to instruct others on what to do? In the process, your child learns how to think logically, solve problems, and experience failure and success. For our year-end concert, our children also put together a robot dance in which they program a group of robots to dance to music. Children would have to decide on the music, the dance formation and the dance steps. Through the process, they learn to plan, create, collaborate, and communicate, all of which are important life skills for their future," he said.
More importantly, the school is not only teaching the children about AI, but also human intelligence (HI).
"Besides learning about AI and leveraging AI to prepare our children for the future, we equally emphasize developing their HI such that they can stand apart from robots and AI. HI such as EQ (emotional quotient), empathy, human touch, warmth, morale, judgment, perseverance, and creativity are uniquely human intelligence that AI and robots cannot easily replace," he said.
Waiting for the Singularity
What about the all-too-human fears that AI will take away jobs?
"AI will not take away jobs. Instead, people who utilize AI will be the ones who take jobs away! That is why we must prepare our children to be native users of AI so that they can make use of AI to amplify and augment their intelligence, think better and faster, and be more creative and productive.
"The nature of jobs will change in the future. For example, AI will be able to diagnose disease better than human doctors simply because AI can be trained on a million patients' data whereas a doctor can only encounter a small fraction of that number of patients in his/her lifetime. However, I would not want an AI or a robot to tell me that I have an illness. I want a human doctor with EQ and empathy to comfort me, guide me, and assure me with confidence that I can battle it. Hence in the future, doctors will need to be more human, with better bedside manners (what I refer to as HI), assisted by AI to provide better health care. Doctors who behave like machines will be replaced by machines.
"In the AI future, we humans have to utilize more of our uniquely human qualities to stand apart from AI while leveraging on AI to amplify and augment our intelligence to make the world a better place," he said.
One of the most discussed ideas in AI is the Singularity – the point at which AI transcends human intelligence and rapidly transforms society.
What are Yen's thoughts on the Singularity and when it will arrive?
"If we define Singularity as the point when AI surpasses human intelligence, then I think in many ways, AI has already passed Singularity. If you have tried ChatGPT, you would know that it can give very good responses to almost any questions in any domain. I certainly cannot answer many of the questions in areas I am not familiar with. ChatGPT and similar large language models (LLMs) already have scored over 90% in the college entrance exam, SATs, and the uniform bar exam in law. Do these count as surpassing Singularity? Some have estimated the current AI’s IQ to be 150. This is smarter than 99.9% of all humans. In comparison, Einstein’s IQ is 160," he said.
Yen also cited the famous Turing test that Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, proposed to determine the intelligence of machines.
"He proposed that a human judge evaluate the text responses from a human and a machine, both of which are hidden from sight. If the judge cannot tell which response is from the machine, then the machine would have passed the Turing test on machine intelligence. Do you think ChatGPT can pass this test? The irony is that we probably have to dumb down ChatGPT’s answers to pass the test. Otherwise, you can easily tell which answers are from the machine – the more intelligent ones!
"On the other hand, it is also well known that ChatGPT and LLMs sometimes give convincing but false answers, known as hallucinations. LLMs also get tripped up by common sense questions that children can easily deal with. Yes, AI is not perfect, but we should also keep in mind that ChatGPT is only six months old. It is just a baby! What will it be like when it grows up? So, it all depends on your definition of Singularity," he said.
Whether the Singularity is here or not, what is certain is that children will live in a brave new world as the first AI generation.
"The smartphone generation cannot imagine how people lived without smartphones. They rely entirely on it. It is the first thing they check in the morning and the last thing they check before they sleep. They do everything on it from communicating, socializing, banking, and purchasing. They can leave home without their wallets but not their smartphones!
"Similarly, the AI generation will be dependent on their AI assistant. It will become an integral part of their life. They cannot imagine living without their AI assistant. The first generation that will grow up with AI – we call them AI natives – will be taking AI for granted! They will only become aware of AI in its absence," he said.
The future is already here. Are your children ready for it?