Can AI Help Bridge the Gap in Elementary Education?

China's AI industry is growing fast. The education and companion robot sector could be worth 3.75 billion yuan in 2019.

Geng Chenxing's smiley 3.5-year-old has a new favorite playmate. But there's a catch: Her companion isn't human.

Geng's a full-time housewife in Huaxian, Henan Province, while her husband works in Xinjiang, the northeast part of China to support the expenditure of the family. She has tried different ways to help the girl's intellectual development, she taught her English words, how to recite Three Character Primer and poems of the Tang Dynasty. But now she tried to use a 799-yuan ($127) reading robot named Luka, who is powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Around the same height as a smaller Barbie doll, the brightly colored, owl-shaped Luka is not your typical toy. Luka, manufactured by Beijing tech startup Wuling, leverages the core intelligent video stream technologies, big data, cloud, visual recognition, as well as algorithms cumulated by years of experience by its parent company Netposa (300367). Luka can help kids to read their picture books, no matter it's in Chinese or English or other languages, no matter which page the kid turns to, Luka will read the page, according to the Luka's designer, He Jiabin. Wuling Technology Using three core competencies of emotional computing, cognitive recognition and behavior recognition to establish relationship based interaction concept, to create AI robots software and hardware products for the consumers.

"One thing parents don't need to worry is Luka only give a positive education; all the content on the platform is health and benefit for children," according to He. The company launched Luka in July and August 2017 as a "picture book reading robot" for 2-8 years-old children to play with. In the past six months, He claims they've sold over 40,000 robots priced at 799 yuan each — and he expects sales to be even higher next year.

There is no data on the number of education robots currently on the market, but China's AI industry is growing fast. The education and companion robot sector could be worth 3.75 billion yuan in 2019, Feng Chao told Sixth-tone, an analyst with Internet consultancy Analysis.

"Robots like Luka are expected to take off in China due to factors like a rising birth rate, the rise of middle class and a keenness from consumers from second and third-tier cities to spend on anything and everything that could help their children to keep up with the kids from first-tier cities, " He explains.

The number of babies born in China in 2016 jumped 7.9% from the previous year, according to government figures, a jump attributable to China's shift to a two-child policy. "There're almost 1 billion of left-behind children among China's large rural population, their parents have to leave hometown to earn more money in big cities for livelihood. Only come back home once a year for the Spring Festival, their Children spend most of their time with grandparents. For children, their family education has been missed as an important part of preschool education. If there's a robot that can bring value to this group, I think it will reduce the uneven distribution of educational resources," He explains.

We are mainly aiming at the family consumption scene; it's called "to Consumers". For scenes like to Business, there are institutions that have begun to contact us. We are also considering letting Luka be in the school or the picture gallery to make many children use the robot together at the same time and we are gradually updating it now. Since China has around 34,000 rural primary schools with fewer than 10 students, according to a China rural education development report published by the National Bureau of Statistics. The introduction of robots can reduce education expenditure, relieve teachers' pressure and add more possibilities to rural education.

In China, the market for children's products has seen a boost following both the introduction of the two-child policy and a shift in consumption habits of young parents born after the 1980s. The China Center for Information Industry Development predicts that China's AI market will exceed 40.6 billion yuan ($6.46 billion) in 2018.

China's AI development is among the best in the world. A government plan released by China's State Council in July 2017 revealed that AI-enabled education is now a national strategy, a part of an AI development roadmap that aims to make the country a global center of AI innovation worth $150 billion (over $22 billion) by 2030.

As for the global market, about 5.4 million service robots for personal and domestic use were sold globally in 2015, generating sales of $2.2 billion; up 4 percent from the previous year according to data from industry group the International Federation of Robotics. According to a white paper on educational robots issued by Beijing Normal University (Educational Robots White Paper 2016: the Global Development) in September, the global scale of the educational robot market is predicted to grow to $11.1 billion dollars by 2021, from $1.8 billion dollars in 2016.

"A strong power company can actually protect users' data and privacy. However, if the company does not place a high degree of importance on data, it may harm users' privacy." Luka's designer He Jiabin told us:" Wuling is the company that highly values user's privacy. "They only use data to analyze and help the traditional press and publishing house to target their users more precisely. Also, they use the data to help parents to decide what kind of picture books is more suitable for their kids.

Speak of the over pursuit of AI worldwide, He said: "everyone has the certain panic about artificial intelligence or has some expectations for it. Because we don't understand it, we don't know what AI will bring us tomorrow."

Educational Robotics (ER) represents a whole new trend; few studies have done to demonstrate ER effects on preschool children. However, a recent study of Educational Robotics intervention on Executive Functions in preschool children: A pilot has published on Computers in Human Behavior last year shows that benefits on Executive Functions in preschool children. Intensive ER training may improve working memory and inhibition skills. The study integrates ER within a theoretical framework of cognitive development.

According to He, there's data evidence to show children's reading hour has been exceeded after they use Luka as a reading companion. For example, they used to read picture books 2 hours one week, but now they read 1-2 hour one day. Besides, this will be a good start for children to fall in love with the reading paper book again and avoid a certain amount of visually harm to their eyes.