What role does automation have in the early childhood sector?

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  Published on Tuesday, 24 March 2020

What role does automation have in the early childhood sector?

Library Home  >  General Early Childhood Information for EducatorsLeadership & Service Management
  Published on Tuesday, 24 March 2020

AI (artificial intelligence), robots, automated decision-making - No, you haven’t mistakenly wandered onto a banking website or a factory operation manual. These aren’t concepts you’ll only run into in technical industries and sci-fi conventions (or the YA section of the library). 

They’re being used in early childhood services around the world, and there may come a day when Australian providers follow suit.

VEVO, for example, is a robot developed to help address the shortage of early childhood educators in Japan. It’s about 70cm tall and humanoid in form, with a face reminiscent of a toy panda or a teddy bear. (You can see it in action in this BBC video).

VEVO recognises individual faces, talks to children, monitors them while they sleep and reports back to parents at the end of the day about things like what their children ate and how long they slept.

It also takes care of administrative tasks (like recording when kids arrive and leave, to determine patterns and assist with rostering).

The Japanese Government acknowledges the shift in thinking required to incorporate AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (internet of things) into early childhood settings, describing it as “societal change” and emphasising that it “enables teachers to focus on more important tasks, know more about their children, enrich children’s experiences and improve the quality of education.”

“Whatever tasks machines can take on, they should cover. The aim is to increase the time nursery teachers spend with the children ‘as people,’” Joe Sadamatsu told Japan Forward last year. Mr Sadamatsu is the CEO of Global Bridge Holdings, which, in collaboration with Gunma University, developed VEVO as part of a broader Child Care System.

The company says their system takes five minutes to do work that previously took two hours. Unsurprisingly for a tech organisation, it also thinks that in the future, good early childhood educators will be those who can analyse data to improve care, and believes the system’s ability to collect, retain and utilise that data will, in some ways, compensate for lack of experience on the part of human workers.

But should we go there just because we can? 

“Science often moves faster than our ability to fully grasp all of its implications, leaving a trail of moral and ethical dilemmas in its wake,” Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkell warned the Go8 Artificial Intelligence Collaboration and Commercialisation Summit last year.

“As the genius of A.I. pushes the boundaries of what we can do, we are faced with increasingly complex questions about what we should do. Answering these questions requires the application of ethics rather than physics. As such, it is not the province solely of scientists, but of every individual.”

The Federal Government recently announced a $31.8 million investment in The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society to help figure it all out.

 “Automated decision-making, like all technology, is making a significant difference to the way we work and the way we live, and it’s important that we get the settings right,” said Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews.

The Government already utilises automatic decision making (ADM) in at least 11 federal departments - and not always with success, as demonstrated by the Robodebt scandal which involved thousands of government payment recipients being wrongfully pursued for money they didn’t owe.  

Clearly, the use of ADM isn’t cut and dried. And while the use of technology is not new in the early childhood space, this is a big leap forward. Automation using AI and robotics is being described as the next industrial revolution and, as Dr Finkle said, if we don’t pay attention, it can get ahead of us.

So, what are the considerations for early childhood services?

It would be great if early childhood educators could be freed from tasks like tallying attendance times and spend the time interacting with kids. But is that what will happen, or will it simply mean staff cuts?

“With better technology, it becomes easier to say we're going to go from this preschool where there are five humans working all the time to this other one where there's one skilled overseer and AI or robots do most of the work,” Economist economics correspondent Ryan Avent told Vox.

“If you can come up with a different model that relies much less on humans and instead relies on technology that can be sold all over the world, and can therefore be pretty cheap per unit, that's a big savings.”

Clearly, the ability to monitor children’s health statistics is beneficial. Across China, pre-schoolers are scanned by a Walklake robot as they arrive for the day, which takes just three seconds to identify the presence of contagious illnesses like conjunctivitis and hand, foot and mouth disease. There’s no guesswork involved in whether a child is sick or not and early identification results in better outcomes for families and centres.

Similarly, data collected, stored and analysed by machines can inform service planning to better cater to specific cohorts, as well as pick up issues for individuals. (Who’s playing with what? Are there behavioural patterns that are hard to spot across different staff rosters? Were the Taco Tuesdays a fizzer?)

But what else could be done with that information? Is it definitely secure? Can it be sold on? Or used for commercial purposes? What are the privacy implications?

Whether it’s held by a private company or a government entity, parents may be wary of how data will follow their child throughout their life. Perhaps it will never matter that Thuy hated carrots, but what about Toby’s behavioural issues? What if that can be somehow used against him in the future?

And what are the legal implications for centres if the technology gets it wrong? Is it even legal to use AI to make specific decisions? The Law Council warns: “Technological developments are advancing at an exponential rate that outpaces the ability of our current legal and regulatory frameworks to keep pace”.

Children currently going through the early childhood system are part of this new era. The divide between their technological reality and the one in which many educators grew up in is already glaringly obvious.

Nevertheless, it is the current generation of early childhood providers who must grapple with these questions in order to ensure that those children benefit. The alternative - ignoring it or taking it on board without scrutiny - could have implications we may not be around to see, but that those children will have to live with. 

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Thursday, 19 March 2020


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