By Debbie Yong
December 5, 2017

When Wang Yi, the founder of Chinese artificial intelligence-powered learning software Lingo Champ, took his Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) examination some years ago, he received a perfect score. Yet, when he went to McDonald’s to order in English, the waiter could not understand him at all.

Wang soon realized he was not alone. His Chinese peers were spending large chunks of their paycheck on online and offline English courses, with little result. This prompted Wang, a former Google product manager, to approach ex-colleague and speech recognition expert Lin Hui and the duo started Lingo Champ in 2012, Wang said on a panel on artificial intelligence at the Brainstorm Tech International forum held in Guangzhou, China, on Tuesday.

Over 50 million registered users now pay just 99 renminbi ($15) a month to use Wang’s app, which encourages language learning through gamification and instant feedback. Users can speak into their mobile phones and they will receive a real-time score on their pronunciation, as well as have their mistakes pointed out to them.

“In the five years since our founding, we’ve collected the world’s largest corpus of the English language as spoken by Chinese people, which has helped us built the most accurate speech evaluation engine for language learners,” said Wang.

But how far will technology such as Wang’s replace the need for human teachers entirely?

“Artificial intelligence will change jobs dramatically, especially in consumer-facing segments,” said Tom Rosamilia, IBM System’s senior vice president. This change is inevitable with every revolution, as we move from an agrarian society to an industrial and now a tech-based one, he argued.

“The work we are doing on healthcare won’t replace the doctor,” he added. The vast amounts of data a hospital collects may help to improve the odds and efficacy of the doctor reading one’s health scans, but it will not replace him, Rosamilia said. “Just as I don’t think we will replace teachers even with outstanding language apps.”

Pointing out the huge undersupply of quality English teachers in China, where mathematics teachers are sometimes roped in to teach English in poorer regions, Wang agreed that his is an underserved target market.

Machine learning, meanwhile, could play a bigger role in aging economies such as Japan and Italy, where the elderly could live at home unassisted or assisted by robots, said Rosamilia. The key is not to fear that new technologies will take away jobs, but to make sure workers include some element of technology in their work.

Everyone needs to learn some tech,” he said.

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