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Educating for a Digital Future: The Challenge

The following blog is an abstract of an article I wrote for the Government of New South Wales, Australia, for use as part of a symposium on Education for a Changing World.  To see the full article and a companion piece I wrote on the implications of these technologies for education, click here.  I'd like to thank the New South Wales government for prompting me to return to an interest in artificial intelligence and its implications for education that first preoccupied me in the 1980s and for permission to reprint this abstract here. 

 

It is not a law of nature that new technologies will put a lot of people out of work in the short term, but then create just as many new jobs that are even better in the long term.

What is distinctive about artificial intelligence technologies is that they embody the very thing that makes us so different from any other thing animate or inanimate on earth: high intelligence. It is now clear that intelligent agents already exceed human capacity in some domains of intelligent behavior. The only question is whether they have the potential to exceed humans in all domains of human intelligence, and, if they do, how long it will take to get there. 

The second stage of the evolution of these technologies is well advanced in its implementation and is now driving an economic divide in which a small elite command vast wealth. That stage has also been characterized by what is becoming a vast extinction in the advanced industrial countries of the kind of jobs requiring basic literacy that the industrial model of public education was designed to prepare most graduates for. 

If that were the end of the story, the solution would be to redesign our education systems to prepare all of our graduates for the kind of work that our elites have been doing—professional work requiring complex thinking skills, deep knowledge in multiple domains, strong communication skills and social skills, strong values and strong character. That is an enormous task, but one that a growing number of countries are learning how to do.

 But that is not the end of the story.

If the human community continues on its current course, historian Yuval Noah Harari's dystopian prediction seems all too probable to me. He suggests a future in which a small number of humans manage to live 150 years or more. a life of immense power and wealth. A larger number may live quite well in the style of Renaissance artists, thinkers and craftspeople serving the ultra-wealthy.  But the vast mass of the people, thought of as surplus labour, are paid out with a universal basic income.

The utopians have a different view. They argue we are on the cusp of being able to cut and edit our genes so as to eliminate a vast range of diseases, feed the millions with nutritious foods grown in a way that will not poison the planet, process all our waste to turn it into the resources we need to provide for everyone, and in general, provide a good life to virtually everyone while restoring our home—planet earth—to health.

But doing that would require a human population with great imagination and high skills. More than any technical skill, it would require a very high order of political skills, not just on the part of our political leaders, but on the part of the citizens who vote for them—or fail to do so.

Human beings were born to work. Our survival has depended on it and so the work we do became for many of us the source of our pride and our identity. If intelligent machines end up doing most of the work that is needed to provide the stuff and the services we need and want, we will have to reinvent our social and political and economic systems to make the arrow point toward the more utopian visions rather than the more dystopian ones. That cannot be done by a few political leaders acting out of rare foresight on their own. It will have to be done by the people.

Yes, many more students will need strong cognitive skills, much deeper knowledge and much more sophisticated non-cognitive skills, if they are going to be partners to increasingly intelligent agents and not put out of work by them in the near to intermediate term. And they will need to be very strong where the intelligent agents are, at least for the time being, relatively weak—in areas like creativity, imagination, and the whole range of social and emotional and communication skills that will be the necessary complements to intelligent agents. 

The question of what it means to be human has never been more urgent. The need to understand history at a deep level in order to prepare ourselves for the future has never been more urgent. The need to enable students to understand others very different from themselves and to be able to see the world from their point of view is essential if we are going to avoid blowing ourselves up on the way to utopia. Yet the liberal arts are disappearing from colleges and universities as students, increasingly anxious about their economic future, focus their time in college and university on narrow vocational goals. But the liberal arts—reconceived—may be the key to our survival as a species.

It is essential to reconceive schooling. Not just in terms of ratcheting up the standards of students' cognitive development and emphasizing students' communication, social and emotional skills and, more broadly, their character, but also to reconceive the curriculum in a way that will prepare students for citizenship in a way that is totally new, for a world that will call on them to make unprecedented decisions about the structure of their societies, the structure of their economies, the nature of work and their responsibilities to others in the world that intelligent technology is creating. 

Above all, a curriculum that is about values, about what it means to be human and what we value about being human. If we fail at this task, it may only be a matter of time before the machines and a small, technological elite are deciding these issues, and we are not likely to be happy with their decisions.

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