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The digital humans are coming – but are we ready for them?

We don’t yet know all the ways that online learning and AI will transform our lives, but we do know that it will have a significant impact in education. The UK government recognises the potential, investing up to £300 million to upgrade schools that fall below Wi-Fi connectivity standards in 55 Education Investment Areas and committing £2 million of investment in Oak National Academy to create new AI teaching tools.

But while policymakers’ focus appears to be on the opportunities for workload reduction and the risks of students cheating, developments elsewhere indicate that AI tools can and will enhance learning.

One growing trend is the emergence of digital humans. Representing the convergence of AI, natural language processing and advanced 3D modelling to create interactive avatars, this technology marks a step change in how students and educators interact with AI-driven systems.

What are digital humans?

Digital humans are AI-powered representations of real or imagined people. They are designed for natural and empathetic interactions and are capable of simulating human-like experiences and conversations.

The potential benefits of digital humans in education are manifold. They promise to transform learning by offering students the opportunity to have nuanced and culturally rich interactions with historical and other figures. This can be delivered in an intuitive and engaging way that extends beyond classroom learning. Interactions with digital avatars can be personalised and catered to individual learning styles and needs, making education more accessible and inclusive.

Reply is leading in this field and recently released A Dialogue with Luigi Einaudi along with Fondazione Einaudi and Compagnia di San Paolo. A Dialogue with Luigi Einaudi is a project that lets users interact with a digital representation of the eponymous second president of the Italian Republic, using AI to generate answers from his writings. It’s a glimpse into the future that deepens our understanding of the past, drawing upon the late statesman’s economic thoughts to bring his historical and cultural legacy to life.

An educated approach

While Reply is a first mover, it’s one among many in a crowded field looking to expand what’s possible with these emerging technologies. Although there are many self-evident benefits, a considered approach is vital when deploying these systems, especially considering the Department for Education’s (DfE) November 2023 call for evidence on artificial intelligence in education looking at the risks and opportunities AI offers.

To avoid the problem of misinformation or ‘hallucinations’, Einaudi’s writings and other primary sources are the core components behind the digital human’s answers. This digital resurrection not only honours his legacy but provides a template for other historical digital avatars – making insights more accessible to the modern learner.

Deployment considerations

Despite their promise, digital humans raise important ethical and practical questions. Paramount concerns include data privacy, the digital divide and balancing between technological reliance and human interaction.

These challenges require the development of robust policy frameworks and ethical guidelines, crucial to ensure that digital humans are integrated into educational settings responsibly and effectively. For instance, introducing legislation to protect student privacy and initiatives to provide equitable access across socio-economic groups will safeguard against exacerbating educational inequalities. Moreover, educators will need continuous training, allowing humans to remain in the driving seat.

The road ahead

The future of digital humans in education is promising but requires considered deployment. Developing comprehensive policies and ethical frameworks is essential to address data privacy concerns, ensure equitable access and maintain a balance between digital and human-driven teaching methods.

The education sector must continue to adapt and evolve, embracing these technologies while fostering collaboration among educators, technologists, and policymakers. These efforts are crucial in harnessing the full potential of digital humans. This is not just an incremental advancement; it’s a significant leap into a new era of educational possibilities.

While challenges exist, the overall promise is positive, making the educational experience more engaging, inclusive, and effective. It’s imperative that we prepare ourselves – educators, students, and policymakers – for a future where digital humans are an important part of our learning journey.

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