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  • Writer's pictureTom Butler

Artificial Intelligence: Are Schools Ready?

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

So what are your thoughts on artificial intelligence?  When you hear the term “AI” do you instantly think of robots taking over the world?  Maybe you think of how AI can help us live longer and enhances our lives.  No matter whether you believe AI is good or bad, there is no doubt that AI is already in our lives and its influence will only grow.

A Great Book To Help You Understand AI

AI Super-Powers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee is a book that helps make sense of where (and how) AI will affect us as individuals and as a society.  To think that AI is not going to have an enormous impact on us is magical thinking. The author has an interesting quiz that you can take to review your readiness for the AI future. Look around your world right now and you can see that is already here.

We recently received a free (from Spotify) Google Home mini. Google Home mini is a little speaker that is in your house which is connected to your Google account so you can ask it to do some tasks (play music, set reminders, order things online, etc.). I am naturally a little skeptical about these types of items, but I allowed my son to keep it in his room. I enjoyed going in his room and telling the speaker to play 80’s hair-band music (which my son does not like) just to annoy him. My fun stopped one day when I walked into his room to make my usual request and the speaker said, “I do not recognize your voice,” and would not play my request.

Machine Learning

The speaker recognizing my son’s voice as the only one that can give it commands is an example of machine learning.  Machine learning is the holy grail of AI.  Machine learning is when the algorithms running the program can change and react without direct input from a human being.  The Google Home mini, when set up in this way, will learn a voice and not listen to one that is not the one it “learned.”  Machine learning is with us in today’s world and is only getting more powerful.   As a matter of fact, I am using Grammarly to correct my mistakes in this blog post!

Employment Impact of AI

The results of the incorporation of machine learning AI into the workforce is potentially staggering.  Blue-collar jobs have been affected by AI robots for 30 years.  Factory floors have been transformed through the use of robots. The coming AI revolution will continue to impact blue-collar jobs, but the most significant change will come in white-collar jobs.  In the book, Lee uses this matrix to demonstrate the types of jobs that will be affected by the next round of AI.

The first matrix looks at cognitive jobs, while the second matric highlights jobs that take dexterity and complexity.  The danger zone includes jobs that are in danger of being replaced, while the safe zone are jobs that are safe (for the time being).  The two middle zones are not as clear.  Slow creep is where AI has shown a potential (not realized yet) to replace workers.  The human veneer zone includes jobs where human interaction is important, but AI will work alongside the person.

Potential Job Disruption of AI

The number of workers who may be affected by AI in the future is breathtaking.  A study cited in the book by Bain and Company estimates that by 2030 employers will need 20-25% fewer employees because of AI.  That’s 30-40 million displaced workers in the United States alone!  The study also found that if you include wage suppression as an effect of AI, up to 80% of workers will be impacted.  The author estimates that within the next 10-20 years that up to 40-50% of jobs will have the potential to be automated. So that was the bad news.  The good news is that AI can be incorporated into how all of our work.  Just because 40-50% of the jobs can be automated does not mean they will be automated.  As indicated in the “human veneer” quadrant, AI must be used to aid in the experience of work for people.

Education Leader's Response to AI

Education leaders must look into the future and ask, “What is the reality of the future, and how can we prepare our students for that reality…today?” School systems are notorious for reacting to past and present crises.  It makes me think of the armies that fight the last war even when engaging in a different, current war. Education leaders that focus on what the future holds and then work backward from that future reality are the ones that best prepare their students for the future.  We use “backward design” when we develop curriculum, and we need to use the same process to design our education system.

Our current K-12 education system is focused on the past; testing of students is based on their past performance and schools are ranked based on those student’s test scores. The dominant policy of testing students and ranking schools is done in a vacuum of future thinking. Testing and rank become the end instead of a means to an end.  The result is school systems that are myopically focused on test scores without thinking of two underlying messages being sent to students.

The first message is that the only thing that matters in learning is a number…and by extension, you as a student are only a number. If a student internalizes this, then they will be frightened by the prospect of AI because AI will always outperform them in a numbers game.  Second, students are not allowed the time or space to interact with each other in non-academic settings.  Lee suggests that being a humanistic thinker will help you adapt to the AI revolution.  In fact, he claims that is the most important thing we can do to adjust to the coming AI revolution.

Shifting the mindset of schools away from the God-awful accountability movement and toward a more humanistic approach is the best adaptation educators can make to help prepare students for the AI future.

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