By Eamon Barrett
November 29, 2018

We might think of AI as a nascent industry but some education entrepreneurs in China believe the innovative technology is already smart enough to teach. Or at the very least lend a hand.

Beijing-based VIPKid is an English-language education platform that connects students in China to teachers across the globe via the internet, helping half a million students receive additional education each week.

CEO Cindy Mi says that VIPKid’s AI-enabled teaching assistant allows classes, and even homework, to be personalized to each student, helping capture the pupil’s attention and drive their performance.

Thanks to its AI-backed software, that personalization is also done at low-cost, helping students vault one of the major barriers to education. “The goal is to create a class where equity and access are not a privilege,” Mi states.

LAIX, an education company with headquarters in Shanghai, is improving access to education as well, by providing an education service to China’s rural areas. But unlike VIPKid, LAIX (also known as Liulishuo) doesn’t provide AI-assistance to human teachers; instead it uses AI to create completely virtual educators.

“Our AI enabled teacher is some kind of interactive program running on your smartphone,” CEO Wang Yi explains. “It’s interactive in that it takes all sorts of input from your phone and responds in a personalised way.”

LAIX and VIPKid share the same values on improving access and enhancing personalization, but on the role of AI in teaching, there’s a little friction. During the discussion at the Fortune Global Tech Forum, Mi threw the proverbial gauntlet at Wang’s feet, declaring that AI will never replace teachers.

But Wang, despite his company’s emphasis on artificial tutors, doesn’t entirely disagree. “I think we will always need teachers, but I think AI teachers will play an increasingly important role across the board,” he says.

Hoping to play a role in the future of education too is WeChat, China’ ubiquitous messaging service. “We’re not going to provide the service,” WeChat Vice President Thunder Lei says. “Lots of companies are already providing education services. We want to be a toolbox, the bridge, or a connecting point between them.”

Both LAIX and VIPKid admit that a significant proportion of their customer acquisitions come via WeChat, where existing clients share their user experiences with friends, inspiring them to join.

Building an association with education will be a boon for WeChat’s parent company Tencent too. Last year Beijing lambasted Tencent’s popular mobile game Honor of Kings as poison, corrupting the minds of China’s youth.

Now Lei says, “We hope that when people are using WeChat they are doing something beneficial to them rather than things that are harmful, like only playing games.”

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