Daniel Victor and Tiffany May
c.2019 New York Times News Service
HONG KONG — Some would say she cheated. Others would say she found an efficient way to finish her tedious assignment and ought to be applauded for her initiative.
The debate lit up Chinese social media this week after the Qianjiang Evening News reported that a teenage girl had found a loophole for her homework: She bought a robot that mimicked her handwriting. Instead of having to manually copy phrases or selections from a textbook dozens of times, a repetitive task common in learning Chinese, she could just teach the robot to do it for her.
On Weibo, a popular social media platform, commenters who had suffered through endless hours of similar homework themselves were split, though most appeared to be sympathetic or even impressed.
“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.
The Chinese newspaper reported that the girl had spent about 800 yuan, or $120, that she had saved from Lunar New Year presents to buy the robot.
She finished a slew of text-copying assignments in two days, much faster than her mother expected, the newspaper reported. The mother discovered — and then smashed — the machine while cleaning the girl’s room, according to the article.
Such technology typically uses robotics to drag a pen across an anchored piece of paper. Some of the products feature pre-loaded handwriting styles, while some allow users to digitize and copy their own handwriting.
The robots are a modern update to a technology that has long existed. At its most basic level, it’s easy to create custom stamps that replicate a signature. Barack Obama was the first American president to use an autopen to sign legislation, though presidents since Harry Truman have used them for correspondence.
A New York-based company, Bond, uses similar robots to send “handwritten” notes by the thousands. The company says it is “dedicated to re-creating the nuance and beauty of human writing.”
It’s also not the first time intrepid Chinese students have found ways to cut corners on their copying assignments.
“Back in the day, we already felt so smug for tying two pens together,” one Weibo commenter said.