AI: huge existential threat, or super assistant?

Sponsored: Wells Cathedral School’s AIConf will investigate the impact of AI on education, and society as a whole, as part of a conference in May 2018

Artificial Intelligence is the cause of great excitement in the media at the moment. There are frequent announcements of new innovations from companies such as Google’s DeepMind team, where humans are being outsmarted by computers. Some highly respected figures have warned of potentially catastrophic consequences – Stephen Hawking has said that, left unchecked, artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk considers it to be “our biggest existential threat”. However, there are plenty of others who are more optimistic about the role of AI in enhancing our lives. Whatever the outcome in reality, there is little doubt that education, along with many other areas of our lives, will be affected dramatically by the continuing rise of artificially intelligent systems and we should be prepared for the changes that lie ahead.

The Nature of Learning

One of the major ways the classroom of the future is likely to be affected is through the use of adaptive learning systems, where vast quantities of data are collected about an individual learner and analysed by AI algorithms, which then produce personalised learning plans to suit their current rate of progress. These are still in a relatively early stage of development, but one example is CENTURY, which uses AI to provide teachers and students with detailed feedback and adapts the tasks set for each learner, based on their previous performance.

Rose Luckin

The Role of Teachers

If AI is taking over the role of task-setting, marking, content delivery and feedback, what is the point of human teachers in the classroom? Sir Anthony Seldon sees the inevitable consequence of adaptive learning systems as reducing the role of teachers to little more than classroom assistants, while AI provides exactly the content, inspiration and challenge that the learner needs. Professor Rose Luckin, Professor of Learner Centred Design at the UCL Knowledge Lab, takes a different view, however, seeing adaptive learning systems as ‘super-assistants’ for teachers, providing them with detailed insights into each learner and allowing the teacher to still be in charge of the learning process.

Sir Anthony Seldon

The Future of Society

AI is predicted to have a hugely disruptive effect on the workplace. A recent Gartner report estimated that 1.8 million jobs will be lost to automation as AI begins to encroach upon areas that we previously thought to be uniquely human. In professions such as law, medicine and finance, AI is already enhancing data analysis, information searches and other areas that might once have been performed by someone starting out in their career. However, the same report also estimated that these new tools will simultaneously create 2.1 million jobs – a net gain. To thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, our young people will need big ideas and the ability to harness technology, in order to enact them. They will need to be able to collaborate, to articulate their ideas and communicate effectively. A World Economic Forum report entitled The Future of Jobs, states that by 2020, the most in-demand skills required by employers will be cognitive flexibility, as workers move between a wide range of jobs during their lifetimes, emotional intelligence, to interact with others effectively, as well as creativity and critical thinking.

Exploring the Future

Wells Cathedral School is holding a conference (AIConf) from 18-19 May 2018, to explore these issues, discussing how they will affect education and society as a whole, from a practical, social and philosophical perspective. Schools who take a lead in this field have an opportunity to shape the future of education, at what is both an exciting and challenging time.

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