ou know Plato as the Ancient Greeks’ favorite teacher. But in the 1970s, the name of the famous philosopher was assigned to a different kind of instructor. This teacher presented basic arithmetic problems and built interactive teaching tools.  Whereas some instructors might have urged students away from passing notes or playing games, this teacher gave students the tools to find innovative ways to do both. Oh, and as far as attire went? This teacher came outfitted with a gas-plasma monitor that bore a monochromatic orange glow.

Researchers had developed the software known as Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO) in the 1960s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as part of an experiment on computer-aided teaching. By the 1970s, thousands of terminals were connected to Urbana’s mainframes.

PLATO was just one way educators have manifested their vision for a computer-instructed classroom. Educators have dreamed about the computer-instructed classroom since the dawn of mainframe computers. In China, such a vision is becoming a reality with the introduction of sophisticated teaching tools that make use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Take the Chinese tutoring company Squirrel AI, for example. The company offers tutoring services which try to precisely mitigate gaps in student understanding. To formulate each course, Squirrel engineers and master teachers work together to break down subjects into the tiniest pieces possible. Such intricate programming sets Squirrel apart from American online instruction. Squirrel’s middle school math course, for example, is broken into over 10,000 conceptual pieces. By comparison, ALEKS, the American interactive learning program which inspired Squirrel’s, breaks concepts into just 1,000 pieces.

In the United States, AI investment in education has fallen flat. Government R&D investment has fallen flat since 2015. Meanwhile, China is determined to be the leader in AI by 2030. The country outpaces both Japan and the United States in terms of AI patents, and ranks first in both quantity and citation for AI research papers. China has solidified formal plans to use AI in future education. The United States has set no such goals.  

While American educational pundits have mused about ways in which AI can be used in education, China has taken action. In China, tax breaks for AI educational ventures, a competitive academic environment, and a wealth of personal data have stimulated the country’s educational boom. Squirrel’s focus on standardized tests is particularly resonant in China’s competitive academic environment. In a country where so many students are focused on preparing for the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, a resource like Squirrel is becoming immensely popular. The company reports that 80% of its students return year after year. Further, Squirrel is programmed to capture a significant amount of data from the beginning of the tutoring process. This feature is enabled by Beijing’s vast amounts of human data collected in a country that has more relaxed ideas about data privacy. Squirrel’s ability to utilize this vast amount of data broadens its ability to personalize its programming to better fit student needs.

What’s more, other Chinese AI tutoring companies are breaking away from Squirrel’s devotion to standardized exams, innovating educational methods alongside the country’s departure from its testing obsession. Alo7 is just one education firm in China, breaking away from a test-oriented programming format. Unlike Squirrel, Alo7 works as a classroom complement to in-person instruction. Alo7 focuses on fostering soft skills such as leadership. It supplements its online resources with a line of textbooks. And when it comes to teaching creativity? Alo7 leaves instruction up to the teacher.

In an article for Forbes, Steve Andriole, a professor of Business Technology in the Villanova School of Business, argues that the U.S. needs to take several steps if it wants to win a growing AI war with China. Such steps include educational initiatives such as increasing university funding to develop educational programming in AI and ingraining deeper STEM content into American primary and secondary schools. Andriole argues that such steps are necessary if the U.S. wants to dominate China in terms of AI research and implementation.

In the 1980s, new research and different technology drew attention away from the computer education project American researchers had embarked upon with PLATO. American educators thus built upon PLATO in future educational endeavors; the software is largely seen as the foundation for future online learning ventures, and led to larger developments in online chat technology. In China, we can only guess which future developments are being bolstered by heavy investment in AI. Educational companies like Squirrel and Alo7 represent the early fruits of increased Chinese interest in the AI sector. The U.S. cannot anticipate similar AI growth unless it begins its investment now. The future of American education likely depends on it.

Allyson Berri
Allyson Berri is a Diplomatic Courier Correspondent whose writing focuses on global affairs and economics.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.