AI tutors are quietly changing how kids study in America, and the top apps are from China.

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Evan, a high school sophomore from Houston, was stuck on a calculus problem. He pulled up Answer AI on his iPhone, drew a picture of the problem from his Advanced Placement math textbook, and ran it through the homework app. Within seconds, Answer AI had generated an answer along with a step-by-step process to solve the problem.

A year ago, Evan would search through long YouTube videos hoping to tackle his homework challenges. He also had a private tutor, who charged $60 an hour. Now, the arrival of AI bots threatens long-established tutoring franchises like Kumon, the 66-year-old Japanese giant with 1,500 locations and about 290,000 students across the United States.

“The hourly cost of a tutor is about the same as a full year's subscription to Answer AI,” Evan told me. “So I stopped doing a lot. [in-person] Tuition.”

Answer AI is among a handful of popular apps that are taking advantage of the advent of ChatGPT and other major language models to help students with everything from writing history papers to solving physics problems. According to data from on May 21, of the top 20 educational apps in the US App Store, five are AI agents that help students with their school assignments, including Answer AI.

There is a perennial debate over what role AI should play in education. The benefits of AI tutors are clear: they make access to after-school tutoring more convenient. Answer AI founder Ric Zhou told me that $60-an-hour tuition in Houston is already more affordable than services in more affluent and academically cut-through regions, such as the Bay Area.

Zhou, a serial entrepreneur, also suggested that AI enables more personalized teaching, which is hard to come by in a classroom of 20 students. Chatbot teachers, who can remember a student's learning habits and are never grumpy to answer questions, could replace the private coaches hired by wealthy families. Meehan, a Houston-based high school junior, said her math grades improved from 85 to 95 within six months of using generative AI for reading.

Currently, AI tutors are mostly limited to text-based interactions, but very soon, they will be able to literally talk to students in ways that are better for each student's learning style, even if that means more Be sympathetic, humorous, or creative. OpenAI's GPT-4o has already demonstrated that an AI assistant that can generate voice responses in a range of emotional styles is within reach.

When AI Doesn't Help You Learn

The vision of equitable, AI-powered learning has yet to be fully realized. Like other apps that forward API calls to LLMs, AI tutors are prone to hallucinations and can spit out incorrect answers. Answer AI tries to improve its accuracy through Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG), a method that optimizes LLM with specific domain knowledge – in this case, a sea of ​​problem sets. But it still makes more mistakes than previous generations of homework apps that match the user's questions with an existing library of practice problems, because these apps don't attempt to answer the questions they're supposed to answer. Don't already know.

Some students are aware of the limitations of AI. Evan often cross-checks Answer AI results with ChatGPT, while Myhanh uses Answer AI in an after-school study group to bounce ideas off her peers. But Evan and Myhanh are the types of self-directed students who are more likely to use AI as a learning aid, while some of their peers may simply entrust AI to do their homework without learning anything. are

Respond to AI's screen capture feature through its Chrome extension. Image: TechCrunch
Image credit: Answer AI.

For now, academics aren't sure what to do with AI. Many US public school districts have banned access to ChatGPT on school devices, but bans on generative AI are difficult to fully enforce once students leave school premises.

Given the fact that it is impossible for teachers and parents to prevent children from using AI for reading, it may be more effective to educate children about the role of AI as an imperfect assistant. Which sometimes makes mistakes instead of completely prohibiting it. While it is difficult to know if a student has learned to solve a math problem by heart based on their written answer, AI is at least good at detecting AI-generated essays. This makes it difficult for students to cheat on humanities assignments that require more original thinking and expression.

Chinese dominance

The two most popular AI helpers in the US, as of May, are both Chinese-owned. The year-old question AI is the brainchild of the founders of Zuoibang, a popular Chinese homework app that has raised nearly $3 billion in equity over the past decade. Gauth, on the other hand, was launched by TikTok's parent ByteDance in 2019. Since its launch, Question AI has been downloaded six million times on Apple's App Store and Google Play Store in the US, while its rival Goth has twice as many installs. Since its inception, according to data provided by market research firm Sensor Tower. (Both are published in the US by Singaporean entities, a common tactic as Chinese tech receives increasing scrutiny from the West.)

Solving the ChatGPT Mathematical Sequence Problem / Image: TechCrunch

The success of Chinese homework apps is a result of their concerted efforts to target the US market in recent years. In 2021, China enacted laws to curb its growing private tutoring sector, focusing on the country's public school curriculum. Many service providers, including brick-and-mortar tuition centers and online study apps, have since pivoted to overseas users. America is surprisingly their most coveted international market due to its large size.

The fact that tutoring apps are using similar core AI technologies has leveled the playing field for foreign players, who are calling on AI to study user behavior and learn about language and culture. Can remove obstacles. As Eugene Wei wrote in his historical analysis of TikTok's global success,[A] Machine learning algorithms can pierce the veil of cultural ignorance to be remarkably responsive and accurate.”

Relying on a single group of LLMs makes it difficult for these study apps to differentiate themselves solely on the quality of their answers. Some legacy players, such as Zuoyebang and PhotoMath, can use a combination of generative AI and search through extensive libraries of their problem sets to improve accuracy. New entrants will need to find alternative ways to differentiate themselves, such as enhancing user personalization features.

“An AI agent needs to actively engage with students and tailor its responses to individual learning needs,” Zhou said. “A raw language model is not a ready-to-use AI agent, so we Strive to differentiate by fine-tuning our AI to teach more effectively. For example, our AI bot will invite students to ask follow-up questions after presenting an answer, encouraging deeper learning rather than simply copying the result.

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