Bill Gates sees A.I. as a win-win for education: It will make you a better essay writer and feed an ‘infinite’ need for teachers

Elementary schoolers might like to keep their peas and carrots separate, but Bill Gates is ready to shake some stuff up for the kids—at least, when it comes to A.I. Mixing the new tech with education could go together as disastrously as jello and meat or as harmoniously as cookies and cream, though Gates’ optimistic viewpoint fits more with the tub of ice cream. In a recent episode of his podcast, “Unconfuse Me,” with guest Sal Khan, CEO of non-profit education company Khan Academy, he expressed that A.I. could help advance the classroom. 

“The role of technology in education isn’t always obvious, but the potential and the possibilities are inspiring,” Gates said.

That’s despite initially doubting the power of OpenAI until he was gripped by “the most stunning demo” from Sam Altman and Greg Brockman. While he acknowledges that A.I. can’t do everything humans do—they act like “a human that’s not very good with context”—and that chatbots can get buggy, he was in shock at the tool’s state. Thinking of how these innovations could best be applied, his mind went to education, perhaps not surprising considering that The Gates Foundation has spent billions on education philanthropy (although their efforts haven’t always succeeded). 

Gates explained that oftentimes, bringing new tech into a classroom unsuccessfully often feels to teachers like an infringement on their creativity and independence. “And yet we all know teachers are heroic, one of the most important, hardest jobs in the world,” he said, suggesting that A.I. could actually help them when they have too much on their plates.

A.I. could compensate for where current software lacks in teaching reading and writing skills, he said. “Very few students get feedback on an essay, that this could be clearer, you really skipped this piece and the reasoning,” he says. “I do think the A.I. will be like a great high school teacher who really marks your essay and you go back and think, ‘okay, I need to step up there.’”

Khan added that Khanmigo, a new A.I. powered tutor created by Khan Academy, might be used in the near future to help distill information and alert teachers about which students are disengaged or have questions. While it’s still working out some issues and some teachers say it’s too quick to help students before they try a problem themselves, Khan thinks it’s potential is powerful and that it might even pass the Turing test at times. 

Even research finds that bringing generative A.I. to the classroom might actually help teachers become more productive. LinkedIn’s new A.I. Future of Work report lists teaching as the common occupation with the third highest share of skills potentially augmented by A.I.: 45%. But rather than seeing this as a sign that the tech would replace teachers’ jobs,  he report asserts that A.I. could help with lesson planning and tutoring, enabling teachers to focus on soft skills like managing classrooms and giving students more individual attention. 

“One thing I always underestimated is how valuable it is for most students to have kind of a social experience,” Gates said in the podcast. He also noted that generative A.I. can help “close the [education] gap and raise up the overall level of achievement,” suggesting it could bolster lower-income and minority students. It’s increased the optimism he had when the Gates Foundation first entered the education space, he said.

Overall, he ultimately sees generative A.I. as more of an assistant teacher than a teacher. To be fair, Gates has a background in computers, not education, which might make his definition of productivity more aligned with a Silicon Valley approach than a classroom mentality. But there’s something to be said for the decades he’s spent trying to improve global education.

As for the teacher job market, that’s “the hardest question to answer,” he said, adding that there will never be too many teachers and demand is “infinite.” The change doesn’t come without potential unknown consequences though, he admits: “It’s very hard to predict how it’ll shift things.”

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