The Last Teacher on Earth
Don’t panic. Last week, Trina said they were just three-percent shy of final deployment, which means that I’ll be entering the final phase of my contract very soon. It might be another heuristics test, or there might be new live-sim footage that I need to sign off on.
And me with another hour until my next class.
“Sondra, open new student message attachments with Auto-Grade, profile setting relaxed point two.”
I scroll through the results, pretending that this extra bit of attention I’m lavishing on my students actually amounts to something. The scores match my expectations with an uncanny level of precision, as they always do.
Then I remember Mrs. Kirk and her crusade against the ubiquitous use of Auto-Grade. It seems like part of another era because it actually was; it’s been seventeen years since the closing of the schools. Before that fateful day, Mrs. Kirk lectured the rest of us about the slippery slope of “autonomous teaching,” but none of us were willing to listen. How could we, when we were dealing with classes that had swollen to twice their normal size and never-ending budget cuts?
I was one of the lucky few who adapted quickly to the new normal, to meeting my kids in a classroom that looks real but isn’t, a place we all visit from our respective homes with holo-goggles that fit snugly over our eyes. How could I have known that I would be the lemming who would leap first from the next cliff?
“She’ll look and sound like you,” Trina told me during our first face-to-face meeting.
Layers of the densest, most advanced neural netware components available today. An ability to mimic self-awareness built on more than ten-thousand hours of audio-visual conditioning, and an innate capacity for modeling a child’s emotions based on the latest neural “mirror” engine, packaged, of course, with off-the-shelf avatar duplication.
“She won’t be perfect,” Trina explained, “but she’ll come closer to duplicating the performance of a trained professional than any AI we’ve ever conditioned. And she’ll be able to teach up to fifty-thousand classes simultaneously, at any time of the day or night. Just imagine: she’ll teach year round, weekends if we want her to. She’ll never need to take a sick day—”
“And she’ll never get paid,” I said. “You’ll put thousands of school teachers out of work; she’ll be the last teacher on Earth.”
“That’s the downside, of course, but for the first time in our history, all of our children will have an equal opportunity to be educated. They’ll have the same fair chance to succeed.”
A laudable goal, but the truth is that dollars and cents have always come before the needs of our kids, and this project is no different than the virtualization of the schools. That’s why it seemed inevitable when the company approached me with their proposal (although I wasn’t the first, I found out later, to be approached), because budgets would be balanced one way or the other, with or without me.
And if I’d said no, someone else would have said yes.
If it pays off, all of the hard work of the past year (and the simulations so far suggest that it will), there’s the end game to think of, which is one of the things that has kept me awake each and every night for the last six months.
I’ll have enough money to live comfortably anywhere I want, but there won’t be a place from sea to shining sea where I won’t be despised by teachers who didn’t win the lottery. I’ll be branded a traitor by my friends and peers; none of them will ever want to speak to me again.
Which leads, inevitably, back to the other questions I haven’t answered, the ones that gnaw at my stomach morning, noon, and night. Will these kids be a generation of lesser-thans because of me? Will they approach each problem with the same shared vision, speak with precisely the same voice? Will they be flesh and blood reflections of the machines that have raised and nurtured them?
“Sondra, decrypt message from NetLabs Incorporated.”
Some good news, in a way. Someone ran the wrong pruning routine; the creative conditioning engine has been damaged, which will push the final deployment back at least three months. Nothing to worry about, really.
Why, then, do I have this burning sensation at the back of my throat?
Suddenly I remember how frightened I was my first day of teaching at that brick and concrete school. I had to climb four flights of stairs to reach the teachers’ lounge; the classrooms were full of chattering students, and the hallways were tinged with the odor of overcooked eggs. After she’d introduced herself, Mrs. Kirk patted my shoulder and gave me one piece of advice.
“A teacher always has doubts about the good she can do, but that never stops her from trying.”
Am I doing good by creating this virtual copy of myself? Or am I hurting generations of children who haven’t even been born yet?
There is an alternative. I could sound the alarm; I could send out the details of my contract, of everything we’ve done so far to every teacher across the country. I could give them a chance to fight this change before it happens.
“Sondra, create new database.”
It’s a long shot, but I can give my coworkers an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. And if NetLabs decides to cut me loose for violating the terms of my contract, so much the better—so long as it’s not too late. I could also wind up becoming another Mrs. Kirk, after all, leading a lonely crusade against a change that’s inevitable.
But that doesn’t matter now. It’s time for the battle to begin.