Despite the attention that advances in article intelligence (AI) are receiving in the press at the moment, there has been very little comment on the implications of AI for the curriculum. To be fair, most of the press articles could be summarised as, “artificial intelligence/machine learning/deep learning is coming, be scared, let’s control it”. But deep down, we know that, “let’s control it” isn’t a particularly valid response. History shows us that trying to control the spread of useful technology is time consuming, labour intensive and ultimately futile. With the possible exception of nuclear weapons, which have limited (but deadly) applications, controlling technology advances is a non starter. We need a better plan. We need to avoid work that will be easily automated, but more importantly, we need to think of other ways in which humans can rise to the challenge of intelligent machines.
Despite all the aforementioned press attention, I have yet to see any consideration of how ‘human learning’ might respond to ‘machine learning’. Curriculum changes traditionally happen at a painfully slow pace, but we should be thinking about what we learn and when. To take one example, the incidence of software agents writing and disseminating information on the internet, so-called information bots, has been denounced as a threat to democracy by some writers. There have been calls to ban the bots and create institutions that fact check and arbitrate on the sole source of ‘the truth’. For my own part, I’m not sure that a Ministry of Truth is really the answer, but why are there futile calls to control a technology when a constructive response would attempt to educate the population, to make them more discerning about what constitutes the truth. Governments do have control over the curriculum, so a positive response would promote critical reasoning to the core curriculum rather than ban the bots.
What this case illustrates once again is that the technologies that impact our lives and careers are developing at a much faster pace than the education system. Its not enough to rely on university, much less school to give us all the skills we need to prosper in a modern job market. Fortunately, there are a huge number of resources available to provide an introduction to a topic or fill in the gaps, resources like Tutorhub, iTunes U, Coursera, EdX and Khan Academy. We have to change the way we think about education. Fifty years ago, it made sense to get the education over with at the start of your life, but from now on, education is never done.
Of late, the press seemed to have picked up on major advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics and translated them into angst regarding the future of mankind. There appears to be a two concerns arising from these developments: how Man (by that I mean we humans, not some bloke down the pub) will maintain our existing hegemony over the world around us, the second being the slightly strange concern as to what we humans will do if all the hard work of cleaning, making and killing is done by robots.
I don’t have much to say about the first of these concerns. Its a work in progress and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. I worry how the law makers and rule generators will generate sufficient insight into these deeply technical areas to make sensible rules, but I’m sure we’ll both make mistakes and also get there in the end. I don’t share some of the apocalyptic concerns that I read in some parts of the press.
For me, the second issue is far more interesting. Just thinking about the myriad of conflicting points is enough to make your head spin. Take, for example, the world of work. If machines do most of the work, labour will be displaced by capital, so will that further exacerbate inequality? Or will it naturally lead to a citizens wage as a way to ‘pay off’ the broader population? What happens to existing the social hierarchy where ‘hard work’ is seen to be such an admirable trait? Will we have to complete re-evaluate what constitutes admirable behaviour? What happens during the transition period? The social and political consequences are fascinating. Its as if we are about to engage in a massive, real time social experiment with unpredictable results.
One thing I’m fairly sure about is that we don’t need hard work as much as we think we do. Or at least not the type of hard work that we currently obsess over. It seems to me that its a historical anomaly for us to willingly enslave ourselves for years to earn money and buy houses, then die and leave them to a combination of the tax man and our descendants. There are so many other things that make us happier, can earn greater prestige and can contribute to the world. As Henry James aptly put it,
“Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasure, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
If that isn’t a recipe for life without work, then I don’t know what it. In a way, you could say that this transition has already begun. If work hard/play hard was the motto of Generation X, the generation that followed is maligned for spending too much time socialising with friends on social media. Perhaps its simply an echo of the future – mankind preparing themselves for whats to come. Only time will tell.