The think tank Reform has suggested that 250,000 public sector workers could lose their jobs over the next few years, being replaced by websites, Artificial Intelligence and “chat bots”. In the front line for replacement could be doctors’ receptionists – and some 90,000 school receptionists. Voice of the North special investigator Bernard Trafford visited a highly advanced Academy that is already ahead of the curve, and discovered a brave new world where robots do it all so much more efficiently than sloppy old humans can hope to.
This piece first appeared in TES online on 11th February under the title ‘The best thing about the teacher-bots of the future is that they won’t accept the “blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home” defeatism’.
The airlock hissed as the glass doors closed on either side of us. Panic rose in my throat as I recalled that scene in Spooks (was it Ros? Jo? possibly even Tom?) where a similarly transparent box filled with water or poison gas – or both.
Don’t be absurd, I told myself. This isn’t a spy drama: it’s a school.
Indeed it was. My colleague Bill, Executive Principal and CEO of the Shiny New Toy Multi-Academy Trust, was welcoming me to what he described as the “whole new reception experience” at AIM (Ambition, Innovation, Excellence) Academy, the latest addition to his chain.
A disembodied voice greeted us. “Welcome to AIM Academy. Enter your birth date, gender, the first letter of your surname if you can remember it, and whatever piffling excuse you have for being late.”
Bill laughed nervously. “The computer seems to be stuck in its Late Registration programme. Let me show you how it works.”
A virtual screen shimmered before us. “See?” he said. “Before it’ll admit late pupils, they have to give the reason: the usual excuses are there in a drop-down.”
Before us flickered the whole gamut from “dog ate my homework” to “an unconscious cow was blocking the road and the bus-driver had to give it mouth-to-mouth.”
“Of course”, continued my host, “I’m meant to have a personal system override, but we haven’t ironed out all the bugs yet. I’ll just punch in the excuse Alarm didn’t go off. That’ll get us in.”
The inner door slid open as the voice commented tonelessly, “That’s not a very grown-up excuse for a girl your age. Report to the robot supervisor for your lunchtime detention. Have a nice day!”
“So that’s it?” I enquired. “The pupil’s registered and goes to class now?”
“Precisely. This is the brave new world, Bernard. Did you read that think tank report? Reform says chat bots should replace 90,000 school administrators and receptionists. It’s the way forward.”
I confess it was impressive. The enormous school atrium was sparklingly clean and devoid of adults or children to make it untidy – but for one machine resembling a large vacuum-cleaner that glided past us and up a side corridor, the claw of its metallic arm clamped on a twelve year-old boy’s neck.
“Don’t worry about him”, prompted Bill breezily. “Jimmy’s always running out of class. The corridor-sweeper bot will seal him safely into an isolation unit until a senior member of staff can see him at lunchtime.”
“One of your assistant heads?” I asked. “Have I met him – or her?”
Bill shifted uneasily. “It is one of my assistant heads. We call it Disci-bot.”
“You mean a robot’s in charge of discipline?” I was aghast.
“Of course. Bots don’t allow themselves to be clouded by emotion. No excuses for failure here, none of that ‘blame-poverty-or-a-broken-home-smell-of-defeatism’ rubbish.” He paused. “Disci-bot was arguably a little inflexible at first, but Artificial Intelligence is amazing. It’s learning at an exponential rate. The other day I found it crying over a girl who was late because her dog had died. Actually,” his tone became confidential, “We had to send it for reprogramming.”
My imagination flashed to 2001, A Space Odyssey, in which Hal, the spaceship’s AI, sets out to eliminate the human crew who pose a risk to the success of its mission.
“But surely,” I pushed the question. “Surely you need the human touch to deal with an upset parent or an injured child?”
“Nonsense! You old-timers always mistake sentimentality for efficient care. Look at the medicentre over there. A child with a grazed knee inserts the injured limb in the socket. It’s irradiated, sprayed with antiseptic, and a layer of plastic skin is added. No need for them to be out of class for more than two minutes. To be fair, it smarts a bit: and one pupil nearly asphyxiated when the machine covered his entire face with artificial skin. But he shouldn’t have stuck his head in the wrong hole. It was clearly marked.”
Back at my own school, colleagues asked, “How was the future, then? Were the pupils happy?”
Blimey! I’d forgotten about the kids. But for Bill and his robots the future was clearly, well, rosy.