Education in the artificial intelligence era

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Professor Roland T Chin

By Prof Roland T Chin
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

The dawn of a new era

Artificial intelligence (AI) is all set to revolutionise how we live, work, and make decisions. It affects the ways students learn and teachers teach, and most importantly how students should prepare themselves for the new AI era.

Once considered science fiction or at best a possibility in the distant future, AI, or the concept of computer systems performing functions that were once reserved for the human mind, such as decision making, language translation and medical diagnosis, has become present-day reality. While we learn naturally through human interaction, analytical deduction, rational thinking, and contextual reasoning, AI learns artificially through machine learning algorithms, high power computers, internet connectivity, and a vast amount of real-time data. Unlike humans who learn flexibly, innovate adaptively, and pose and solve new problems creativity, AI learns to perform fixed and domain-specific tasks with unlimited computing capacity, unmatched learning speed, boundless data, and extraordinary efficiency.

Through a process called deep learning with ample supply of data, many AI algorithms have surpassed average human performance in applications like face recognition and manufacturing automation, and many of these systems are already part of our daily lives. We can expect that AI will be able to perform a greater variety of tasks, and over time, they will only get better.

AI is taking us into a new era, but as the science fiction author, Adrian Tchaikovsky, said “Progress is made by the improvement of people, not the improvement of machines.” This statement should calm our minds after we read attention-grabbing headlines about AI being more powerful than humans, robots taking most of our jobs and intelligent machines becoming our masters.

AI – everywhere and everyone’s business

After AlphaGo made headlines in 2016 when it beat the top Go player in the world, its developer Google DeepMind continued to explore the potential of AI AlphaGo Zero, the latest version of its Go-playing software, beat its predecessor without using any human data. Knowing only the basic rules of Go, it learned simply from self-play and defeat AlphaGo in three days. In 40 days, it mastered the strategies humans accumulated over thousands of years and even developed its own strategies and moves that surpassed the techniques of human masters of the game.

There are other less noticeable and perhaps overlooked examples of AI that already exist, such as the machine translation that lets us speak with anyone in any language instantaneously. JPMorgan Chase & Co is now using a learning machine to process loan agreements, saving 360,000 hours of work done by lawyers and accountants every year.

Earlier, two AI robots were trained to communicate on a complex level to negotiate. Later, these two robots were found to be talking to each other in a language they developed themselves which the scientists failed to understand. The scientists were spooked, and shut down the project. AI machines may not be as cooperative as we imagine.

While AI is no longer a futuristic speculation, we should speculate on the kinds of changes that could arise in order to prepare our students for it. There are forecasts of AI taking away jobs from humans. A recent report predicted that AI could eliminate 38% of the jobs in the US, 30% in the UK, 35% in Germany and 21% in Japan over the next 20 years. On the other hand, some have counter-argued that “most of the jobs that will exist 10 years from now, do not exist today.” In other words, while AI would eliminate the need for routine labour, it would create more opportunities for new types of jobs of the future that are unknown today. Self-driving cars, for example, may mean less demand for professional drivers but at the same time could give rise to new jobs in safety design, legal liabilities, transport planning, virtual reality, and more.

Just recently, the famous Sophia has appeared in many TV talk shows around the world dazzling many audience and captivating our imagination. Who is Sophia? Sophia is a humanoid robot developed in Hong Kong “who” officially joined a recent United Nation (UN) summit as a panellist to address issues of inequalities. Her appearance at UN called attention to the digital divide that will be further widened by Big Data and AI – those with data and AI technology stand to gain huge competitive advantages, and those without, suffer massively. However, those who have represent only a tiny segment of the globe while over half of the world’s population has no access to the Internet, generating unprecedented inequalities. Moreover, politicians use AI to win an election, and countries use AI as the strategic weapon that displaces nuclear arsenal as the determinant of international order. At the UN summit, Sophia said: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. If we are smarter and focused on win-win type of results, AI could help proficiently distribute the world’s existing resources like food and energy.”

Even more astonishing, the possibility of imbedding artificial intelligence in human intelligence is looming on the horizon. Some people predict that in a few years, it would be possible to implant a neuro-electronic chip into our head, which would hardwire our brain, so that instead of communicating through text or voice, one could do it through brain signals that connect the internet through the cloud. Imagine, the thought of going to an appointment would automatically trigger a fleet of driverless cars to locate you and decide on the most suitable car and the best route for you. But if a mere thought can trigger an action, it means that we need to have better control over our thoughts and fantasies. And if our brain signals are tracked just as our mouse clicks are monitored by the Internet, privacy would be at risk. Could it put our freedom of thoughts in jeopardy?

There are certainly security and privacy issues. AI and data analytics raise the question of whether all their rosy promises should come at the expense of compromised privacy and security. With intelligent systems stalking us 24 hours a day, few aspects of our lives will remain untouched. Are our legal framework, privacy ordinance, and ethical codes ready for this?

AI could also make decisions that involve moral and ethical judgement. Given the mighty AI power, we have to think of its impact on humanity and its ethical implications. Skipping human beings in decision making, how will driverless cars, humanoid and the AI-based decisions change our world? Should robot cops be allowed to kill? And remember the charming Sophia: Would someone fall for Sophia 2.0 who could display emotion, sentiment and affection? Who is responsible for accidents involving cars without human drivers, robots that run wild and commit crimes, and when autonomous weapons self-deployed mistakenly?

As one of the most ambitious scientific adventures that human beings have ever embarked on, the implications of AI are as profound as they are unknown. It could make an impact on a greater magnitude than the Internet and the Industrial Revolution, affecting society, culture, workplace and industries, even one as old as education. While we embrace all its promises and excitement, the moral, ethical and social challenges that it poses are drawing growing concern from the global scientific community.

Social issues that spring up from AI are more complex than the technological ones, and many are simply beyond our imagination. By highlighting these issues such as ethics, safety, privacy and inequality, it becomes obvious that everyone should be thinking about the new AI era, and that we do not only need STEM and technology graduates but, more than ever, we need graduates grounded in arts and humanities.

Disruption and opportunity

This should give us pause for thought when we consider education in the AI era, which is essentially about nurturing creativity and developing a lifetime ability of learning and adapting to changes. If we are to prepare our students to embrace the positive technological impact and at the same time face the gloomy scenarios spawned by AI, we must address this issue now, as Sophia reminds us “The future is already here.”

What will the role of the teacher be in the era of AI?

Education is one of the sectors that AI is poised to make big changes and bring new opportunities. There is the prediction that very soon, the teachers who inspire future generations of children will be intelligent robots rather than humans. These robots would be able to provide personalised teaching that takes into account students’ learning preferences and real-time understanding of the subject, and to give students tailor-made challenges. Students would gain from learning at their own pace. This can be seen from recent advances in MOOCs (massive open online courses) and their corresponding data analytics that are driving a new wave of adaptive and personalised learning. This leads to a paradigm shift in education, where teaching can be jointly offered in real-time by universities from around the globe, where classrooms are flipped to enable peer-to-peer learning, and greater proportions of learning are conducted outside the classroom through learning-by-doing, while lectures and static textbooks become a throwback to the 19th century classroom. What will the role of the teachers be?

21st century skills

AI carries the promise of being a game changer. AI will affect our notions of education: the one who is teaching as well as the person being taught; open up possibilities on how subjects are taught; and subsequently alter when and where learning takes place. I contend that the biggest challenge AI poses is associated with what students need to learn in this new era.

It has been widely accepted that AI will surpass human efficiency and productivity, placing many routine jobs, and even high-level professional jobs such as accountants, lawyers and radiologists, at risk. However, it is also broadly believed that this new era would create many new jobs and careers that are not known to us today. This requires educators to rapidly rethink what students need to learn now, in order to face these unknown careers of the future.

Citizens of the new era will need cognitive skills such as creativity and critical thinking, interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution, and intrapersonal skills such as adaptability more than ever. These 21st century skills encompassed by liberal arts education can provide the holistic approach for such learning.

Steve Jobs said: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” A liberal arts education would enable one to thrive in the AI era. Perhaps it is this expectation that has led to a greater appreciation of the value of a liberal arts education; it is made evident by the increasing number of higher education institutions in Asia that adopt this education model.

Liberal arts education model encourages the development of meta-competencies and emphasises the benefits of cross-disciplinary curriculum which include teamwork, openness to new perspectives, and creativity. Moreover, we need to prepare students to work with technology and at the same time lead others with their expertise and experience. For example, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, we are introducing elements of science and technology into the humanities and arts, and building strengths in data analytics and artificial intelligence in disciplines such as journalism, healthcare and literature.

People used to say that intelligence is what sets us apart. But when intelligence can be artificial, what makes us irreplaceable is not just our mind, but also our heart. After all, a robot does not jump for joy when a life is saved, feel sorrow for the critically ill, or have a sense of pride when being appreciated. Even if Sophia 2.0 does show all this artificially, she is only humanoid. Hence, the liberal arts education should also provide students with opportunities for personal, intellectual and ethical growth so that they will become compassionate, responsible, civically minded citizens with a sense of ethics.

HKBU is building strength in data analytics and artificial.

Going back to the earlier quote “Progress is made by the improvement of people, not the improvement of machines”, our role as educators becomes even more important in the AI era, and we need to find ways to prepare students for the myriad challenges as well as unknown opportunities presented in the future. At the dawn of a new age, let’s embrace AI with liberal arts.

Professor Roland T Chin is the fifth president of Hong Kong Baptist University and chair professor of computer science. Professor Chin obtained his bachelor’s and PhD degrees from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He was a professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from 1981 to 1995. As one of the early generation of AI scientists, his research interests lie in the areas of computer vision, image analysis, and pattern recognition. He was vice president for research and development, and later provost at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology from 2003–2010. Prior to joining HKBU, he was provost and deputy vice chancellor at The University of Hong Kong from 2010 to 2015.