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Chinese Publisher Introduces AI Textbooks For Preschoolers

Photos of an artificial intelligence textbook for Chinese preschoolers have gone viral. Artificial Intelligence Experiment Materials is a 33-volume textbook series aimed at Chinese students from kindergarten to high school that was published this July by Henan People’s Publishing House.

AI researchers from Google, the Institute of Automation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and key Chinese universities collaborated on the textbooks, which pertain to an AI education initiative launched this July by the China Education Technology Association Smart Learning Committee and UNESCO. The aim is to democratize AI education in 100 Chinese schools, introduce pre-teens to the basics, strengthen teenagers’ capability for using intelligent and applied technologies, and help train hundreds of new AI teachers.

Also included in the initiative is a cloud-based AI e-learning platform that students can access via PC or WeChat. The platform supports major machine learning frameworks including TensorFlow, CNTK, and Caffe; programming environments Scratch 3.0 and Python Integrated Development Environment (IDE); and includes digital copies of the 33 AI textbooks and a broad scope of use cases. Platform development was reportedly led by Google AI experts in Beijing.

Chinese netizens’ reaction on social media has been mixed. Despite widespread AI enthusiasm in the country, many argue that kindergarten is too early for children to begin their AI education, with posts such as “I am seeing a bunch of tech practitioners abruptly foraying into early-age education” and “This is a typical ‘spoiling things by undue haste’ situation.”

East China Normal University recently introduced six textbooks on AI technological research and development for primary and secondary schools, and has put another four books on the publishing schedule for 2019. In April 40 high schools in Shanghai began using Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence, a nine-chapter AI textbook compiled by SenseTime, the world’s most valuable AI startup. Two months later, Suzhou University published its Primary and Secondary School Artificial intelligence Series.

AI technological research and development textbooks for primary and secondary schools.

The penetration rate of children’s programming education in mainland China is only 0.96 percent, much lower than the US’s 44.80 percent and UK’s 9.31 percent, according to the 2017–2023 Chinese Children’s Programming Market Analysis Forecast report. The Chinese government wants to catch up, and called for more AI-related courses in primary and secondary schools in the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan issued by the State Council in 2017.

China is not the only country putting efforts into AI education for K-12. This May the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in the US announced a joint initiative to develop national guidelines for teaching K-12 students about AI and define what students in each grade should know about AI, machine learning, and robotics.

Alan Majer, founder of Good Robot, told Synced that exposing kindergarten children to a new tech like AI is a “wonderful” thing. “These are the children that are going to invent our future. Perhaps the world’s next Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Ada Lovelace, or John Seely Brown, is just waiting to get the right book (or AI algorithm) into their hands.”

Kristian Simsarian, an educator, AI/robotics expert and founder of San Francisco-based tech innovation company Collective Creativity told Synced that educators should think of AI in terms of literacy and 21st century skills. “AI as technology has many aspects, including automation, machine learning, machine intelligence, robotics, data mining, and human-robot augmentation to name a few. Children will need to develop AI literacy about these different aspects as well as the application domains including medicine, law, farming, government, transportation and beyond.

“With the rise of automation, new skills are emerging as valuable in the age of AI and are often not the focus of K-12 education. These include problem finding, inquiry, flexibility, collaboration, creativity, systems thinking and technological literacy to name the basics,” says Simsarian. “AI changes what we teach the next generation starting in Kindergarten because the next generation will have jobs that do not exist yet.”

Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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