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How AI will supercharge early-childhood education

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The job of teaching is often cited as one that won't be replaced by artificial intelligence. But according to Joseph Qualls, an AI researcher at the University of Idaho, education, especially the early-childhood variety, is ripe for transformation through AI.

The money quote: "I see people starting to interact with AI when they're very young. It could be in the form of a teddy bear that begins to build a profile of you, and that profile can help guide how you learn throughout your life," he tells Smithsonian Magazine. "From the profile, the AI could help build a better educational experience. That's really where I think this is going to go over the next 10 to 20 years."

Ethical concerns: Qualls says that we should be careful about implementing AI in the education system, so that students aren't pigeonholed. For instance, "[the AI program] tells me my child has a tendency to be very mathematically oriented, but she also shows an aptitude for drawing," Qualls says. "Based on the data it has, the machine applies a weight to certain things about this person. And, we really can't explain why it does what it does. That's why I'm always telling people that we have to build this system in a way that it doesn't box a person in."

The role of the teacher: Qualls says that in the future, teachers will serve as monitors of AI systems that develop personalized curricula. "They'll become more data scientists who understand the AI and can evaluate the data about how students are learning," he says. " You're going to need someone who's an expert watching the data and watching the student. There will need to be a human in the loop for some time, maybe for at least 20 years."