‘AI is a bigger issue than global warming’ says Buckingham VC
Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor at the University of Buckingham, explains why the government’s investment in AI is welcome, and why it’s imperative we address the education 4.0 struggle
There is no greater issue facing schools, university, society and the economy than AI, and more generally, the 4.0 revolution (which includes augmented reality, the internet of things and robotics). The government is investing £18.5 million into AI and data science training.
It is a bigger issue than global warming, which we will solve before it is too late, even if we run it very close to the edge. There is no guarantee that we will win the 4.0 revolution struggle, and that humankind will survive with a high quality of living.
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With climate change, the big financial interests all have very direct incentives to help solve the problem. But with the 4.0 revolution, the big money is in the interest of milking the revolution and technology to their maximum benefit. Let us not deceive ourselves that the interests of the big companies is benign.
At its best, the AI and 4.0 revolutions will offer untold benefits in learning, giving students a depth of educational experience, a degree of challenge, and a breadth of life far beyond anything that is possible today for the vast majority. An Eton-style education is possible for all with this technology. But we have to make the right decisions, and ensure that the new technology operates in the interests of everyone, not just a minority.
The government’s announcement that £18.5 million will be available to boost diversity in AI technology and innovation and online training for adults, is thus to be welcomed. Up to £13.5m of the new funding will be for an extra 2,500 AI and data science conversion degrees, with 1,000 scholarships for people from underrepresented groups. The other £5m will drive innovation in adult online learning. But let us not imagine that this will do more than scratch the surface. We need to embed teaching about the coming 4.0 revolution at the heart of every school, and every educational institution needs to be adopting the new technology to enhance educational quality and opportunity.
The British government has been slow to understand AI in education. This latest initiative shows it is beginning to get it.
We need to know and understand much more what the frontiers of this new technology are. What can it do uniquely well, and what is the domain that humans can do best?
My own institution, The University of Buckingham, is partnering with Jisc, the body that oversees digital in HE, to offer Britain’s first 4.0 undergraduate degree (in history), and postgraduate degree (cybersecurity). We will be working with professor Rose Luckin of UCL, and Priya Lakhani, the CEO of edtech company Century Tech. But we want to work with all partners across the HE sector, and all those involved in producing the technology, to ensure that we have access to the best possible thinking. Year on year, we will learn what works best, and provide invaluable information for others to follow. Our pledge to the students is that they will be taught at least as well as they would have been if their degree was taught in conventional ways (The University of Buckingham holds gold in Britain in the government’s Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework). We have a high standard to meet.
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We are also looking to set up Britain’s first school which will again be exploring the cutting edge of 4.0 technology. We want to start at primary level because we can work with the youngest children to integrate the technology in their lives. In time, we will then open a secondary school. We want to do this with partners in the educational sector, as well as in government.
The British government has been slow to understand AI in education. This latest initiative shows it is beginning to get it. Britain could lead the world on AI in education if it willed it.
A previous version of this article stated that the University of Buckingham is first in Britain in the government’s excellence framework table. This has been amended for clarification, as the table isn’t ranked.