Photographer:Fotograaf: Public Domain Pictures
MAASTRICHT. You enter the classroom and there is no lecturer in sight. Instead, a robot whizzes around and teaches at the whiteboard. The lectures turn into mass events with thousands of students listening in via a video link-up or some other technological device. Maastricht’s famous PBL sessions diminish slowly and online courses become part of everyday life. This scenario could be Maastricht’s future in 50 years or even less.
A recent debate on a German talk show – “Brave new job market: Humans replaced by technology?” – touched upon the issue of a robot teacher currently being developed in Switzerland. The labour market having to adapt to the forces of technology is nothing new. But what happened to the assumption that jobs requiring social interaction and creativity are the least likely to be taken over by robots?
Gwen van Uldehoven and Marta Dávila Mateu, two students from the Department of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering in Maastricht, reject this view. Van Uldehoven, a third-year student of Knowledge Engineering, stresses the increasing role of technology in our daily life. She is even programming a robot to play football. “Soon humans will simply no longer be necessary”, she says without hesitation.
First-year student Mateu points out it could be useful to have robots teach maths and sciences, instead of humans with all their flaws. “Actually, we already have tutorials without professors and with only a screen which tells us what to do.” Given this, Maastricht is probably not too far away from the scenario described above. But Mateu acknowledges that subjects such as philosophy or art, or classes with pupils under the age of 12, require a teacher and role model. “It will take a very long time to get robots to that stage.” At present, robots cannot provide the type of social and emotional intelligence needed to command an unruly classroom.
Karine Khachatryan, a law student, believes it is not unrealistic that lecturers will be replaced by robots one day. Still, she doubts that all teachers will become superfluous. “Maybe robots will be responsible for essential knowledge transfer, but for the rest – the whole human interaction and learning process – people are needed as mentors and facilitators. This would probably even increase efficiency since teachers could pay more attention to the worries and needs of the students.”
Yul Énnaézumé, a Japanese Erasmus student at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, suggests that machines will soon be able to outperform humans at almost any task. “And Japan is already further ahead than Europe.” One important advantage of computerisation, as she points out, is that society might be able to educate more students than ever – and for a cheaper price.