Artificial Intelligence: Opportunities, threats and the future of learning

Artificial Intelligence: Opportunities, threats and the future of learning

Robotic nurses and surgeons. Autonomous vehicles. Cloud computing. Chat bots. The rapid expansion of technology and digital applications that characterizes the “4th Industrial Revolution” is changing the way we live, work – and learn.

It’s a revolution driven by the fusion and amplification of emerging breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, and multiplied by the far-reaching connectivity between billions of people with mobile devices that offer unprecedented access to data and knowledge. In education, the 4th Industrial Revolution (4th IR) has the potential to transform learning and expand its reach far beyond traditional barriers – however, there are some major caveats, particular ethical ones, to consider.

Educators, government officials and businesspeople from 16 countries in Asia-Pacific gathered recently to discuss these concerns and better understand how we can respond to – and prepare people for – the 4th IR and advances such as AI.

The policy seminar, “Educating for the 4th Industrial Revolution”, organized by UNESCO with the cooperation of the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), looked at the implications of the growing ubiquity of AI – how it’s reaching more and more people, and they may not even know it. Online shopping, online games, email, social networking and media sites all have AI embedded into their applications, and the list of products and services continues to grow. Homes, cars, and financial and health care services are embracing machine learning to improve products and services.

Education systems, teachers and curricula need to be responsive to these changes. The 4th IR creates a demand for new skills and competencies, while automation and AI puts jobs at risk. This then creates a need to train and retrain people to utilize new technologies. National education systems have the opportunity to focus in on and hone inherently human competencies that are crucial in this rapidly shifting environment, such as problem solving, communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

MAINTAINING HUMANITY AMID THE MACHINES

The importance of preserving this “human” element amid the 4th IR was highlighted by Anshul Sonak, Intel’s Regional Director for Education and Innovation, Asia at the seminar. 

“Technology-based education curriculums are lacking a focus on personal values, ethics, and life skills,” he said. “New generations are technically connected but socially disconnected. We should think about what kind of people we are generating.”

Participants noted the need throughout the region to improve teachers’ understanding of these technologies, their potential drawbacks and benefits, and how they can most effectively be used in the classroom. 

Technologies, such as AI, can be utilized to support formal education and lifelong learning by promoting the development of adaptive learning environments, with tools that are flexible, inclusive, personalized, and engaging. Examples include blended learning spaces where digital technologies and traditional classroom activities complement each other, and personal AI tutors that can strengthen inclusiveness by providing intelligent support specifically tailored for each learner’s needs.

However, AI tools lack the socio-emotional interactive communication skills that that teachers can use to get the best out of their students. To maximize its potential, education systems must not get seduced by technology; the focus should be on learning.

AI’S RISKS AND REWARDS

AI and machine learning involve software that has been programmed to interact with the world in ways that would otherwise be thought of as human. AI depends on knowledge about the world as well as programs or algorithms to intelligently process that knowledge. Today, most AI programs are specifically coded to do one task – analyzing online shopping trends to make recommendations, for example – but it is becoming more sophisticated,. This sparks fears of the “singularity” of AI, where the technology will be able to redesign and improve itself, or design more powerful AI, a popular theme in science-fiction books and films, such as Terminator, I, Robot, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Renowned scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, and tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, are warning us to beware of AI and how we use it. Ethical questions are raised, not only around how we utilize AI, but the ethics that will exist within these technologies.

One fear is that these technologies will centralize power, deepening inequality. And depending on how AI has been programmed, it may analyze a situation and implement solutions detrimental to people or the environment. For example, a shortage in the food supply may result in AI’s most logical solution being to raise prices dramatically, driving some people into poverty. Or it may decide to reduce the population by any means, if it deemed that the most efficient path.

Since AI is a reflection of its creators and those who have programmed it, we need to make sure that these technologies are aligned with our moral and ethical values. As seminar participant Sampan Silapanad, Vice-President at Western Digital noted: “If inequalities are not solved as the 4th IR progresses, we all fail.”

Despite these concerns, the 4th IR still holds tremendous promise for education systems and educators provided countries develop strategies that respond to these technologies and reflect collaboration between the public and private sectors. A focus on “human” skills, improving teacher-training on technology, and raising awareness among stakeholders will help maximize technology’s benefits.

Establishing best practices is essential in this regard and to this end, UNESCO is aiming to launch a new project looking at how to embed the values of well-being, peace and human rights within artificial intelligence. UNESCO will be looking to discuss the ethics surrounding and within AI, how education stakeholders and policymakers can best utilize AI, taking advantage of its benefits and minimizing risks.

Emerging technologies will need to be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal 4-Education 2030 Agenda, particularly target 4.7, , which focuses on instilling the values of global citizenship and sustainable development and peace, and human rights. Developing and nurturing human empathy, social skills and resiliency is no longer solely the domain of humans – we must bring these qualities alive in our technologies as well.

By Mark Manns