Robotic copying

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Since so much of learning to read and write Chinese characters depends upon mindless repetition, writing them countless times, some bright people in the age of AI have finally seized upon a way to escape from the drudgery:  training a robot to write the characters endlessly for them.

"Chinese schoolgirl shamed for using robot to write homework. Now everybody wants one"

Teen bought device online and was caught out by her mother when she completed her Lunar New Year assignments in record time

Media report alerts a wider audience to the robots, which can copy text and mimic your handwriting

Phoebe Zhang, SCMP (2/19/19)

Needless to say, the news of such machines has galvanized the emotions of hundreds of millions of Chinese who have suffered or are suffering from such rote copying:

The topic on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, had been read over 13 million times by Tuesday, with more than 3,000 posts.

Most of the commenters sympathized with the girl who used such a robot to complete her demanding assignments on time, not with the mother who smashed it to bits when she discovered it in her daughter's room.

Some argued that the girl should no longer be made to copy texts at her age, while one called for education reform allowing teachers to set challenging and creative homework rather than boring the pupils and adding to their burdens.

Another asked: "Sometimes educators need to reflect on this issue, why is it we still need to do a task that can be completed by a robot?"

Even before the invention of such sophisticated electromechanical devices, desperate, clever individuals had created crude contraptions with three or four pens tied together that multiplied the writing capacity of an individual severalfold.  Indeed, when I visited Monticello about ten years ago, among the many amazing belongings of Thomas Jefferson was a copying machine that enabled him to make perfect duplicates of whatever he was writing.  I stared at it for quite a while, trying to figure out how the original pen and the copying pen were linked.

Jefferson's copying machine was called a "polygraph".  It was designed by Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855) and made by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) in 1806 in Philadelphia.  Employing the principles of the draftsman's pantograph, Jefferson's polygraph was used by the president from that year until his death.  He called it "the finest invention of the present age".  Jefferson actually had several polygraphs which he kept in the different places he lived.  In addition to the one at Monticello, another one of them survives at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.  (Source)

Returning to the current story of the writing robots in China (it turns out that there are a number of companies that produce them), it also made the NYT:

"Chinese Girl Finds a Way Out of Tedious Homework: Make a Robot Do It ", by Daniel Victor and Tiffany May (2/21/19)

As noted above, most of the online commenters sided with the girl:

"Give her a break. How meaningful is copying anyway?" one commenter asked.

"The difference between humans and other animals is that they know how to make and use tools," another reasoned. "This young lady already knows how to do this."

Proficiently reading and writing in Chinese requires knowing thousands of characters. Copying them repeatedly is often seen as a necessary step in learning how to write them. In addition to being tested on individual characters, they may also be asked to transcribe a literary text from memory — an assignment usually dreaded by students.

Like Bart in the opening sequence of "The Simpsons," students can also be punished by being made to write out texts repeatedly; unlike Bart, they are often ordered to copy whole textbook chapters, not just single sentences. Chinese curriculums in both the sciences and humanities prize rote memorization.

But there's a deeper, more existential question than whether the girl was clever or not, and whether she was right or wrong to avail herself of modern technology to avoid inane toil, namely, what does this predicament say about the nature of the Chinese writing system and the efforts of people in the 21st century who have access to computers and various types of digital technology to continue to master it the way writing has been mastered in China for more than two thousand years?  Is it not akin to demanding that Chinese students go back to a time before even slide rules were invented to do their math?

The writing is on the wall:  technology is spelling (!) the death knell for writing the characters by hand.  The shape of the future is already evident in Singapore, where the educational authorities permit (nay, encourage) students to use computers and other digital technology to write the characters for them.  And I don't think it's a coincidence that tiny Singapore consistently produces a disproportionate amount of the most outstanding (in terms of knowledgeability and creativity) students in the Sinosphere.

Reading

"Writing characters and writing letters " (11/7/18)

"Copying characters " (2/11/13)

"The wrong way to write Chinese characters " (11/28/18)

"Writing Chinese characters as a form of punishment " (11/1/15)

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters " (5/16/16)

"Firestorm over Chinese characters " (5/23/16)

"Writing Sinitic languages with phonetic scripts " (5/20/16)

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

"Learning to read and write Chinese " (7/11/6)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now " (4/5/14)

"Sinophone and Sinosphere " (11/8/12)

The Writing on the Wall:  How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity (2003), by William C. Hannas

[Thanks to Alex Wang and Anne Henochowicz]



16 Comments

  1. Alyssa said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but I don't think this kind of endless rote copying is necessary (or even particularly helpful) for learning characters.

    I certainly found in my personal experience with studying Japanese that I learned kanji much more effectively by reading and writing characters in context, as full words in meaningful sentences.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 1:42 pm

    @Alyssa

    Amen! Hallelujah!

  3. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 3:26 pm

    How does writing characters in context help memorize their strokes? If possible, I'd like to read some academic publications

  4. Kristian said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 4:11 pm

    @Alyssa
    Do you think most children are capable of learning in the way you describe? Doesn't it require a rather high level of abstract thought? I mean, you already know what reading and writing are, and what the goal is.

    If the robot writes the characters in a perfectly consistent way, wouldn't it become pretty obvious that someone is using one? It's like comic books — when the lettering is perfectly consistent, it's clear the author is using a computer instead of writing the text by hand.

  5. bks said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 5:37 pm

    Learn the math before slide rules? Yes, I think that is appropriate. Logarithms, Euclid's Algorithm and the Pythagorean Theorem are all reasonable parts of the math curriculum.

  6. alex said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 6:51 pm

    @antonio banderas

    Here are links to two interesting studies. They don't directly address your question but are relevant to the topic

    The Western Computer and the Chinese Character:
    Recent Debates on Chinese Writing Reform

    https://web.uri.edu/iaics/files/06-Changfu-Chang-Yihai-Chen.pdf

    2017
    The Challenge of Chinese Character Acquisition:
    Leveraging Multimodality in Overcoming a
    Centuries-Old Problem
    Justin Olmanson
    University of Nebraska at Lincoln, jolmanson2@unl.edu
    Xianquan Chrystal Liu
    University of Nebraska – Lincoln, crystal040524@gmail.com

    https://cehs.unl.edu/faculty/cv/CVJustinOlmanson2016-01-01.pdf

  7. Alex said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 6:54 pm

    @Kristian said,

    "If the robot writes the characters in a perfectly consistent way, wouldn't it become pretty obvious that someone is using one?"

    Im pretty sure you know the answer to this one :-)

    If one thinks the teacher actually checks closely, I have a bridge to sell! That or a road as there are many to no where here!

  8. Alex said,

    February 22, 2019 @ 7:09 pm

    @Alyssa

    "I certainly found in my personal experience with studying Japanese that I learned kanji much more effectively by reading and writing characters in context, as full words in meaningful sentences."

    You hit upon the second part of the insanity of the pedagogy here!

    rather than focus on vernacular, they are are made since first grade to copy classical prose so they can blindly memorize it! Often first graders have no clue but parents praise the fact they can recite many Tang Poems or chengyu without fully understanding what they are saying or writing!

    A significant part of the characters they are forced to write over and over again arent characters/words they would ever use in daily life.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 4:43 am

    Alex ("the second part of the insanity of the pedagogy") — I would be interested to know what fraction of educated Chinese people would agree with your hypothesis that learning to write hanzi by repeatedly copying out the classic texts is insane.

  10. Alex said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    @philip taylor,

    I don't have any hard data. From the article and my experience there does seem to many but as far as percentages go who knows. I think if it were anonymous the percentage would be higher.

    The top answers on why they feel kids should have to do this are;

    this is what we have done and so we don,t lose our culture

    its amazing how "educated" people also claim without the characters / logograms a person cant get the "deep" meaning of the classic texts. And when I say many simplified characters dont look like the characters the people of that time period used, that doesn't seem to matter.

  11. Alex said,

    February 23, 2019 @ 8:23 am

    @philip taylor,

    a good analogy is how many "educated" people still believe in one must eat hot foods with cold foods etc or other areas of TCM which has been disproven by science.

    as usual it depends on what they are educated in, major and such.

  12. Perry Svensson said,

    February 24, 2019 @ 2:04 am

    "The writing is on the wall: technology is spelling (!) the death knell for writing the characters by hand."

    Indeed. I'm a translator who has lived in China and Taiwan for the past 30 years or so, reading and translating from Chinese every day. Writing by hand never used to be a problem (well, perhaps aesthetically it was), but over the past 10 years or so, I have increasingly started to only write Chinese on my cellphone, tablet or computer, getting used to using pinyin input since I don't have writing recognition on any of the computers I use, and character knowledge is becoming passive. When I try to write by hand these days, I constantly get caught on characters, sometimes even simple ones. It used to be that if I couldn't remember all the strokes of a character, I just started writing it without thinking and most of the time it came out right, but motor memory is no help anymore. Very frustrating.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    February 24, 2019 @ 11:43 am

    Perry — I cannot help but wonder (and I do appreciate that some may interpret this as an intentionally provocative remark) whether, if you had spent much of your childhood "mindlessly copying/writing the same character over and over again", you might not have lost your motor/hanzi memory quite so quickly …

  14. Alex said,

    February 24, 2019 @ 6:16 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    There is a similar phenomenon in piano. With piano they say people who move beyond ABRSM level 8 might never really forget how to play as it requires over 2500 hours. Also the ability to sight read isnt hard to recapture if one moved past a certain level.

    which is an hour a day for many years.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ABRSM

    They will forget songs but they can pick up after some practice a certain level even after not playing for years.

    whereas those who drop out after just several years cant quite get it back so quickly.

    The main difference between piano Chinese is the uniqueness of each character whereas sight reading and playing can be considered like phonics

  15. Perry Svensson said,

    February 24, 2019 @ 11:13 pm

    Philip — probably not. I only got started in my mid-20s, and I'm sure another 15-20 years of writing, both copying for exercise and practical use, would have made all the difference. I sometimes see my wife (native Chinese-speaker) thinking about a more infrequently used character, but in the end she still gets it right. If it hadn't been for those cellphones/tablets…

  16. dainichi said,

    February 27, 2019 @ 2:00 am

    @Alyssa: … reading and writing characters in context, as full words in meaningful sentences.

    Well, the article says:

    > She used it for exercises such as copying passages from a textbook and writing essays.

    This sounds like characters "in context, as full words in meaningful sentences" to me.

    I think the question of how to learn characters, and the question of the usefulness of it (and the whole writing system) are 2 separate issues.

    If you do indeed have to learn them, and learn them well, I think rogue repetition, boring as it is, does add some value by drilling them into muscle memory. I hated my Czerny exercises as a young piano student, too, but I do think they improved my technique.

    As for whether it's worth it, I fully support making writing easier, either with technology or orthographic reform. Not so much because learning characters is a waste of time (because people "waste" time on so many things anyway and who's to decide what is "waste"), but mostly because complex orthographies unnecessarily leave some people functionally illiterate, which has many unfortunate consequences (such as inhibiting democracy).

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