Am AI making sense?

I’ve just finished reading Anthony Seldon’s The Fourth Education Revolution and wanted to write about it for a number of reasons. The book was recently republished in a ‘Covid Edition’ and it seems particularly apt to write about it now after a year spent heavily involved with teaching via technology.

There isn’t any value in my writing a formal book review here – others, like The Spectator and ICT and Computing in Education, have done it already – but I do think an exploration of some of the ideas discussed in the book is valuable. Stephen Burley of Kings High, Warwick wrote an interesting piece on his response to this book here although he, like all of us, is light on concrete applications of any of the issues discussed.


BROAD STROKES

Artificial intelligence is already everywhere. From the first Google search of the day, through job and university applications, money management, online shopping… There are few parts of our lives that remain untouched by AI of some description. Every interaction you have with a computer or phone entails handing over data that is used in ever more sophisticated ways.

Education, however, is a long way behind in making good use of the benefits AI (and many other technologies) afford. There are multiple reasons for this – some financial, some systemic, some cultural – but there is no doubt that AI has the potential to fundamentally change students learn.

Seldon’s book – part manifesto, part historical exploration, part philosophical treatise – traces the development of both education and AI as well as offering an overview of current thinking on what intelligence actually is. The book’s scope is broad and although detail is sometimes thin, there are plenty of interesting references to follow up.

The broad argument is that education remains rooted in a centuries-old approach which focuses on a narrow curriculum and offers only limited flexibility for the most- and least-capable students. The greatest villain in this piece is the focus on knowledge and skills to the exclusion of creativity and individual thinking. The system, according to Seldon, remains based on a production-line model in which students follow a linear path through each stage of education with little opportunity for significant deviation.

One of the great values of this has been allowing governments to guide education in providing the skills and professional archetypes broader society needs. On a more human level, the acquisition of knowledge increasingly prevents us from making the mistakes of the past and enable us more efficiently to develop knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Where, for example, it took Darwin decades to discover the fundamentals of evolution, we are all able to learn the same information in merely tens of hours.

This cumulative increase in human knowledge should not be underestimated. It has allowed us to take great leaps forward and – despite the errors that we make – is correctly viewed as critically important human right. Take a look at the late Hans Rosling’s Gapminder website if you don’t believe me. There you will find data on just how much the world has changed, even in the past couple of decades; the change leans strongly in the positive direction, despite what we are generally led to believe by the mainstream media.

Seldon asserts that AI, specifically the use of algorithms, should offer the ability to tailor the education experience for every student whilst simultaneously allowing them a more holistic experience in which the arts, in particular, can form a more significant part than it does presently.

The question is, how can it do that?

BROADER STROKES

In Seldon’s utopian education system, AI will enable each child to have a bespoke learning programme that adapts to their needs, allowing them to move at a pace that suits them. The ultimate aim of this is not the meeting of notional targets but the development of an individual mind through increased mastery of subjects. Teachers will become curators of education – their administrative burden massively reduced, they will have more time to care for the pastoral, philosophical, and cultural development of students. Virtual and augmented reality will give students the chance to massively widen their bank of experiences for relatively low cost and in safety. In combination, this will allow students to develop into fully rounded versions of themselves, capable of the creative, imaginative thinking that the brave new world will require.

Seldon does present the pessimists’ view as well: the dangers of job loss, the damage an artificially intelligent army may pose, the threats of hacking and of corporate misuse of power. These are real concerns and there will certainly be many more that we do not see coming, but the overall tone of the book is positive in asserting the benefits AI will bring.

His conclusion, though, is positive. The effect of AI on education will be bigger than the creation of the printing press. Where the latter transformed our ability to propagate knowledge, the former promises an altogether broader revolution. Seldon cites Age of Discovery by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna as describing our current situation as a new renaissance – we are living in period of intense innovation with high levels of migration and social friction. At the moment, all the balls are up in the air and it is in no way clear where they will land.

WHERE ARE WE LEFT?

This book is a thought-provoking read and I certainly agree with Seldon’s broad assertion that AI has the possibility of radically transforming education. Its subtitle poses a question – ‘Will AI liberate or infantilise humanity?’ – which unsurprisingly it singularly fails to answer.

AI is still in its infancy, despite the essential technology having been around for some decades. As the software improves and computing power grows, we will find new uses for it. We also must be careful to keep developments open. Work by private companies will remain important but we must ensure that they are transparent about what they are doing. Facebook was punished in 2019 by the Federal Trade Commission for collecting biometric data without the consent of users. This, certainly, is the right decision; the approach of Tim Berners Lee in allowing software to be public domain is surely the more valuable line to take.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter that the book doesn’t answer its own question. The purpose of this book is not to provide answers, it is to explore and energise. AI is here to stay and we must ensure it becomes the most valuable tool possible.

As Seldon writes, education is fundamentally important in harnessing the power of technology to the benefit of our future. At the moment, it is behind. We have neither the investment nor the incentive to use technology as anything more than an adjunct to the way we teach.

If being locked down multiples during the course of the pandemic has shown anything, it is that technology in teaching at present merely enables connections. Video conferencing was a lifeline for those that could afford it but beyond that, technology offered little that couldn’t be done better in a classroom.

In a world in which Google knows more about me than I do, there is surely power in AI that we should harness.

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