This news from the Korea Times about automated machines supplanting real-live English teachers over the next decade had me thinking, "Wow, English-teaching robots replacing human English teachers? What could possibly go wrong?"
Well, with the help of these guys, I was able to briefly go into the future and — with just a ninety-second window to check my blog — see what posts I may have written in the future about the subject (side note: KRW-USD exchange rate at 540 won per dollar). Here's a post from September 15, 2020 that I retrieved just before the portal closed:
Netizens are angry following the seventh Engbot office massacre since the new semester began. Netizens are always angry about something, but ever since they were collectively appointed Minister of Culture and Information, they're a force to be reckoned with. And at any rate, this time their outrage may actually be justified: The latest event involved more decapitations than in previous attacks, and there is some speculation that it wasn't just bribe-taking, drunk-getting, female student-groping ajŏshi teachers who were victims this time. Naturally, people are scared, and pissed off.
From the Gorea Times-Herald-Daily:
The scene was bloody in the lounge of "S" Language Institute in suburban Seoul yesterday after the management became innocent victims of the latest in a string of deadly Engbot attacks. Law enforcement cordoned off the building, but eyewitnesses with offices nearby describe a confused scene of body parts and frayed wires.Like most of the others, it is believed that this latest attack was also prompted by a contract dispute. Two days earlier, people in nearby offices reportedly heard an Engbot speaking in a high-pitched robotic tone complaining that its contract clearly stated a maximum of 140 hours of classroom time per week. It was also complaining about the size of its residence: It had been allotted just a small closet even though the contract promised a medium-sized closet.
"I craned my neck to look at the carnage as the police shuffled me and my coworkers toward the elevator, and I saw dozens of bodies slumped lifelessly over desks and on the floor," noted Park Miyung (25). "I was relieved to find out later that most of them were just cops napping."
"Engbots" is the popular name for English-teaching robots introduced a decade ago, known officially as the ED-2010. They were developed in order to save money over hiring real-live English teachers, and it was thought that their widespread use would reduce administrative paperwork, operating expenses, and headaches stemming from cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Though they were programmed to recite the historical record supporting Korean ownership of Tokto and to recognize the health benefits of kimchi, thus reducing 93% of intercultural conflict, their artificial intelligence architecture eventually made their behavior so human-like that they responded negatively to many situations in which flesh-and-blood foreign teachers would also react unfavorably, only with greater force and more effective organization.
Police believe that may have set off the incident, particularly if the offending Engbot had any software defects. The head teacher at the institute, who survived the incident by taking a two-hour lunch, told police the Engbot's lesson plans this week would have included idioms such as "kick some butt" and "heads will roll." A faulty literalism chip could easily turn such a lecture into a deadly encounter.
The same article notes there's already a lot of handwringing over the robot attacks:
"In hindsight," robotics engineer Choe Kyushik told us off the record, "we shouldn't have given them superhuman strength. We thought it was a good idea at the time, since they could also be used for moving furniture. The old model human English teachers always griped about things like that. Telling them that their large White people arms made them genetically more predisposed for heavy manual labor just got them angry. Especially the women."Of course, there are dissenters to the general anti-robot mood. From an op-ed in the iPad Times:
Look, the AI-infused robots are just reacting according to their programming, which is to be like humans, and no humans like to be jerked around. If you promise them high-grade lubricant oil and a clean motherboard, you'd better give them high-grade lubricant oil and a clean motherboard. If you don't, they'll be in your face and all over the Internet.As one would expect, however, the Engbots do have their supporters, particularly Ben Wagner, a professor of law at the Super Songdo Hovering Cyber University located in the floating hologram circling the top twenty floors of the 312-story Songdo Super Korea Tower Complex Park in the Old Songdo International Development Complex. From the Hankyoreh:
Indeed, Engbot gripes generally involve managerial promises of high-grade oil lube jobs and sleeping compartments that are at least one meter wide. The Great Engbot Strike of 2017 occurred because it was discovered average sleeping compartments were only 96 centimeters. The hagwon industry was brought to its knees when all the Canadianism-programmed Engbots walked off the job. The Americanism Engbots, however, lacking any code that would enable them to use metric, gleefully went about their duties.
That was the largest work stoppage since the Ministry of Education temporarily removed "monthly lube jobs" as a guaranteed contract item in 2015, when a newly promoted MOE bureaucrat became convinced it was a sexual reference. "No more English teachers and sex in Korea," declared the pencil pusher, "That was the whole point of the Engbot Iniative."
Ben Wagner says Koreans should avoid stereotyping Engbots, and he says he will raise objections on the three remaining K-blogs and file a petition with the National Human and Robot Rights Commission of Korea to make sure new regulations are not imposed on super-strength robots unless they're also put on human Korean teachers as well.Sigh. Like so many other high-tech "solutions," it seems the Engbots have created more problems than they fixed. And to think back in 2010 this looked like such a promising idea. In those heady days, one kyopo commenter privately told me about the departing humanoids, "At least we'll finally be rid of their bellyaching."
He also noted that many of the stories of Engbot robot violence may be the exaggerations of a robophobic public. "It's worth noting that we have no actual first-hand eyewitness accounts of Engbots committing school administrative violence," he said in a cranium-phone interview. "It's all hearsay or conjecture."
"That's because there have never been any survivors," noted MOE vice minister Kim Nayŏng. "At least not any that still had their tongue intact."
I'll end this post with a touching story from Lee Ryu, a teacher whose elementary school friend was among the victims of one of last week's attacks:
I never thought I'd say this, but after all these robot massacres, I long for the days when English teachers just spread AIDS and occasionally touched students in inappropriate places.Now that the deadly spider pumas which Radiant Leader Kim Jong-un unleashed on us have all been exterminated, I suppose the imported Sri Lankan animal handlers could be put back to work sneaking up on Engbots and flipping their emergency-off switches. Once the menace is contained, we could ask the human English teachers to come back, but after that horrible incident at the Equine Flu Internment Camp in 2013, would they want to?
AIDS takes a long time to die from. You get AIDS from your foreign co-teacher and you still have five or ten years to get your affairs in order. With angry Engbots, you've got five seconds before so much blood rushes out of your neck that you lose consciousness. Even with cranium-implant speed dialing, that's not enough to call my loved ones and say good-bye. I might get my wife and my girlfriend, but I wouldn't have time to reach the kids.