Friday, February 26, 2010

English teachers to be wiped out by robot revolution

By that I meant "Foreign English teachers to be wiped out by robot revolution." Just to clarify. It might look something like this:

A nefarious plot been in the works for over a year now. Last February, this article appeared, about the English education robot 'Vani' (바니 in Korean, eerily similar to 'Barney') and its use in a Goyang, Gyeonggi-do classroom, utilizing the 'confirm English' video conferencing solution. Solution to what, you may ask?

The same robot turned up last September as well:

A new batch of higher tech robots were introduced at Happo Elementary School in Masan on December 23 last year, with even the mayor in attendance. A video of the mayor interacting with the robot can be seen at the bottom of this page.

As noted in the Busan Ilbo, the robots were to be demonstrated at Happo Elementary School in Masan for eight weeks, and would also be promoted at Hogye Elementary School in Masan and Naedong Elementary School in Daejeon.

I'm sure you're dying to know their names. The one above fixing an unsettling stare upon the little girl is Ingki, and the one below is Mero.

The photo above and below are from this January 31 article about the use of the robots, and is - wait - what the --??

Umm... do people really think having a robot that gets a big blue bulge between its legs when it's standing between two young girls work as a teacher is really a good idea? I mean, it really looks happy, even delirious, in that photo. Disturbing. I hope someone emails that photo to Anti English Spectrum. Oh, wait, I think the robot was made in Korea, so there's probably no point.

At any rate, the article relates that according to ten year-old Hwang Yun-ji, learning from the robot is more comfortable and there is less pressure than learning from a native speaking teacher at a hagwon, and that it’s easier to concentrate on learning English when practicing and repeating with the robot. A (clearly long-practiced for) video showing one of the poor girls above interacting with the robot (nah, it's nothing like Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo) is here (found it here):

Now, even though these articles that I looked at mentioned nothing about 'replacing' native speakers, that's what a Korea Times article titled, er, "Robots to Replace Native English Teachers," is about:
During the second decade of the New Millennium, robots are expected to replace a number of English-speaking teachers here, who come from such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

At a robotics forum, which brought together 150 experts from across the country late last week in Seoul, participants predicted that English-speaking robots would fill the shoes of native speakers in the future.

"By around 2015, robots should be able to help teachers in English classes. By 2018, they should be able to teach on their own while communicating with students," said Kim Shin-hwan, an economist at the Hyundai Research Institute.
So who's making these robots, anyways? Hyundai? (One hopes a Westworld moment doesn't lead to a large recall for Hyundai, in that case).
"Robots have a part to play in education. The consensus is that research will be conducted in various areas to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of teaching," Kim said. [...]

Many participants in the forum projected that robots will be able to provide customized education suited to personal abilities and interests, which is difficult in today's schools where dozens of students pack a class.
I'm sure that's an unbiased opinion about the need for robots in a classroom. And the only way "robots will be able to provide customized education suited to personal abilities and interests" is if there's one for every (or a handful of) students. The article goes on to say that
Over the long haul machines are predicted to reduce the discrimination suffered by the underprivileged, who currently cannot experience quality education services.
Hmmm. Perhaps I misjudged that bulge between the legs of the blue robot ('Ingki', if you remember). Perhaps it's actually a nozzle for a nitrous oxide dispenser, because whoever wrote that last quoted sentence was huffing something. A commenter at this site offers another point of view:
"I'm currently teaching in South Korea (and yes, there are always job openings... though less than usual, with the recession on). I teach at two public elementary schools, one of which is on the extreme outskirts of the city and only has 46 students. For some reason, this tiny school got an English robot called the Cybertalker, which uses voice recognition and some kind of face recognition to tailor pre-made conversations to students. The only time I've seen the thing turned on was in the frantic lead up to a school inspection, when my English classes were cancelled in favour of registering all the students in the system and trying to make it perform for the school board officials. Even with days of practice, the students couldn't make it respond - even the almost fluent teachers couldn't make it recognize their English. These are the crappiest teaching robots in existence. A Speak and Spell would be more useful."
Another Korea Times article asks foreign teachers and recruiters for their thoughts:
Jason Cresswell, president of ASK Now-ETO, a recruitment agency which finds English teachers for Korean schools, dismisses the idea of robots completely.

"I think it is funny,'' the Canadian said. "I don't think it is realistic, I don't think people's jobs are at risk. Personal interaction is a lot more important than just repeating things over and over again ― if you want that then you can just use a tape recorder,'' he said. "It has got a lot of people talking, a lot of people feel insulted, because (it shows that Koreans) think teachers are just machines,'' Cresswell said.[...]

The idea of robots teaching English is comical, says Dann Gaymer, spokesperson for the Association for Teachers of English in Korea. "I find it amusing. We can make a robot to do anything in the world and Koreans chose to make it teach English,'' he said. "Robots replacing teachers is not one of our major concerns.''

Patricia Tamless, from Texas, who teaches at an institute, believes that technology may get to a stage where robots could teach, but thinks they could not replace Western teachers' cultural values.

While technology may eventually evolve to a point where robots could teach grammar and vocabulary, they will never be a viable replacement for foreign English teachers because they will not be able to offer the window into Western culture that we provide,'' the 24-year-old said.
I really hate to break this to her, but a "window into Western culture" is precisely what some Koreans (of whom some are in the media and government) don't want. A person who can teach a children to speak with the 'correct' accent? Yes.

It's this part of the equation these people don't want:

For awhile, about a year ago, when you typed in 'Native English teacher' and did a picture search on Naver, these turned up first (it features the same teacher). The first Korea Times article makes clear that they would like to get some distance between foreign teachers and Koreans:
"Before such sophisticated English-speaking robots debut, teaching by native English speakers will be conducted by video-conferencing with teachers in their home countries," he said.

Kim said that the numerous native English speakers at Korea's language institutes - estimated in the vicinity of 30,000 - will lose their jobs in the not-so-distant future.

"At first, the English-speaking robots will be used in a similar fashion to e-learning, or study via the Internet because the robots would be controlled by humans across the Pacific," Kim said. [Emphasis added.]
They seem to be referring to this kind of robot:

This idea of separating Western technology (in this case, English language) from Western culture (ie, foreigners who bring their degenerate drug/music/sexual culture and date our women) is not a new one, as this quote from this essay reveals:
Supposing, for instance, there were to be some stupid fellow, some uneducated lout, secretly attempting to diffuse his teachings [in our country]; then we have the law of our state, by which all such shall be exterminated and destroyed without mercy; what reason, then is there for sorrow on account of our (alleged) inability to deal with such abuses? [...] If the [foreign] doctrine is to be regarded as a doctrine of lechery and sensuality, then it can be kept at a distance; if foreign mechanism is advantageous, then we can reap advantage from it and use it to increase our wealth. . . . Let us repel their doctrines, but learn to use or imitate their machinery; both these courses of policy can be carried out, and thus no outrage will be done to propriety.
The essay is titled "Treaties, Extraterritorial Rights,and American Protestant Missions in Late Joseon Korea," by Ryu Dae Young, and those words were spoken by none other than King Gojong in 1882 as he tried to convince naysayers that they could allow Americans to come to Korea and help in its modernization without spreading their religion. It was Benjamin Wagner who discovered this essay, and who offered this take on the robots:
The whole concept is the same, stripping the person and the ideology from the technology. Step one is a remote operation system, Step two is complete separation of the "technology" from the "doctrine" of the native speaker.
To add to this, the cultural baggage attached to Western foreigners has often been seen as a problem, though in the case of Christianity, despite misgivings the missionaries were quite successful in both spreading schools and hospitals as well as Christianity. US soldiers were wanted in Korea to protect it (and be a means of injecting cash into the economy), but also spread other things (original link lost):
The U.S. military in South Korea spreads “Yankee culture and all sorts of social ills,” North Korea's state-controlled Pyongyang Broadcasting has claimed. In a program on Wednesday, the broadcaster ... blasted the USFK for spreading "decadent music," citing the corrupting influence of blues and rock and roll in the 1960s, soul in the 1970s, disco in the 1980s and rap in the 1990s.
It was on the US army bases that Korean musicians like Patty Kim and Shin Jung-hyun got their start and, in Shin's case, spread rock and roll throughout Korea. In the end, however, Park Chung-hee was just as critical of “Yankee culture and all sorts of social ills” as Kim Il-sung, and made marijuana illegal in order to arrest numerous musicians and other celebrities, essentially killing the rock and folk scene. Here's Shin at his trial, from the March 10, 1976 Kyunghyang Shinmun:

Korean B-Boys (and the entire blueprint of K-pop) were influenced by Seo Taeji and the Boys, but 'the Boys' learned their dancing from soldiers in Itaewon (see POP GOES KOREA for more on this). This influence is no longer crushed, as it was under President Park, but instead the contribution is willfully forgotten, much as an English teacher's opening of the "first-ever salsa club on the Korean peninsula" has been (as noted by Scott Burgeson, whose Bug 5 featured an interview with a DJ who I believe worked as an English teacher and helped enlarge the club/electronic music scene in Hongdae). Hongdae has been a place to go out for quite awhile, as this 1992 rendering from Ilgan Sports reprinted in Seoul, Twentieth Century: Growth and Change of the Last 100 Years shows:

Foreigners have made many contributions to Hongdae, but these days, Hongdae and foreigners - especially English teachers - have rather negative connotations due to the way it has been represented in the media since the English Spectrum incident five years ago, when photos like these made clear to some (like the founders of Anti English Spectrum) that the "doctrine of lechery and sensuality", was not being kept at a distance, and that the price of the advantageous "foreign mechanism" (a native speaker-like English accent) was too high. Hongdae was indeed associated with foreigners, but not in a positive way; it was instead called a "hook-up paradise for foreign men and Korean women" (not meant in a good way!) in mid 2006, and in January 2007, YTN reported that foreigners and US soldiers running amok in Hongdae were turning it into a "lawless zone". After USFK declared Hongdae off limits to US soldiers, YTN reported that “Since the ban, the area in front of Hongik University has maintained a state of very serene public order."

Of course, "a state of very serene public order" in places like Hongdae may be one of the things those pushing the English teaching robots would like to see. In that case they'll serve two purposes, as they'll not only be teaching English, but keeping classrooms and places like Hongdae cleansed and pure.


kushibo said...

More than robots will be wiped out, and it will be too late for a recall.

I wouldn't worry about any of this since, even if it comes to any fruition, it will mean that more technical skill (robotics, English pedagogy, etc.) will be needed. And people who have been here for a while will find other things they want to do. It's a very different world from, say, 1995.

And if they don't find anything new to do in Korea, they can take the pennies they've saved and do something else worthwhile with their Korea experience.

Mark Russell said...

Great catch on that 1992 Hongdae drawing. Very interesting to see how the center of gravity of the neighborhood has changed (several times) since then. My sense of the area's history is a little different (I thought a bar called Reggae, located in the alleys by Nolita Park, was an important spot back in 1992), but who knows if my friends' recollections or the newspaper is wrong?

I am still waiting to read a good history of Hongdae in the 1980s (and am too lazy to write it myself). Fascinating how it became the hipster area.

matt said...

I'm not too worried. Well, the design of the robots and their inhuman stares worry me, but I imagine the jobs will be around for awhile.

It would be an interesting history to read. A friend who was here back in 1993-94 told me about the how clubs there got around the midnight curfew, with (literally) underground clubs having it a bit easier, being out of sight, but above-ground clubs having to get a room full of drinking, dancing people to stay quiet as the lights and music went off at the first sign of a cop car (and everyone actually did stay quiet while they needed to). By the time I arrived in 2001, you would never have known that there had been a curfew only 6(?) years before.

JSK said...

"the corrupting influence of blues and rock and roll..."

Sweet Jesus, is there anything I long for more? Decadent western? I'll be your huckleberry. ^^

JSK said...

All the DJs in Hongdae back in the day (early 90s) were pale face "English teacher" types doing it for free, late night and breaking curfew.

It was a different feel back then. Everyone in Hongdae (Korean and foreign) knew each other. See the same people out all the time. It was also way more low key. Foreigners, Koreans, everyone was more mellow. Also a lot more interaction between foreigners and Koreans (both male and female).

For sure there was "hooking up" between western guys and Korean girls but just as much between Korean male hipsters (there were plenty) and Korean female hipsterettes. In fact, I'd say the Korean dudes in the scene at that time probably were at an advantage. They were so different from the clueless white-socked suits who would show up unwelcome (and politely ignored by all) until they'd finally leave. Also there wasn't the that sense of animosity between western males and Korean males. Perhaps because the hipsters had their choice of the girls.

Mark Russell said...

The midnight curfew lasted until about 1999, if I recall correctly. It might have been extended until 2am for a year or so before being abolished (the transition person is a little hazy in my memory).

But certainly I can remember being in a club, when suddenly the music and lights would cut off and everyone would have to be quiet until the police left (in particular one certain officer who liked to bust after-hours bars, regardless of their kickbacks).

Mark Russell said...

Arg. I meant "transition period", of course.

matt said...

That late? You wouldn't have known it in 2001, that's for sure.

JSK said...

That engorged middle limb is even more pronounced on the upgraded (blue) version of ingki. How absurdly obscene.

Darth Babaganoosh said...

It wasn't a midnight curfew. It was a midnight closing time. Clubs and bars had to be closed by then, but you didn't have to be off the streets.

Uncle Tomato said...

Haha, where did you find those pics of the blonde teacher?!

matt said...

I just did an image search for English Teacher (영어강사) at

B_Wagner said...

Brian wrote an interesting post on this topic on March 19, 2010 entitled Korea's robot English teachers won't go away.

B_Wagner said...

"Students learn English using virtual reality," 3 Sept. 2010, The Korea Times.

"While buying a subway ticket in Boston, a Korean elementary school student asks an agent [a foreigner English teacher] what direction she should take. Following the instruction, the student takes the train at the platform.

. . .

This does not take place in the United States but in a class at a primary school in Daejeon, about 100 kilometers south of Seoul."

There's an image that accompanies the article of a foreign English teacher wired up with a headphone and mic at a remote location.