Educating in a world of Robots

The problem with the way we educate and the things we value in education is that it isn’t preparing students to work in a world of robots. I don’t mean C3PO and R2D2. I’m talking specifically about a world in which most people have access to and actively utilize artificial intelligence.

What’s artificial intelligence?

This is important to understand before moving forward. When I talk about artificial intelligence (AI) I’m talking about machine learning. The idea is that a computer (or several computers) can take a large amount of data, run algorithms and software on that data, and use it to make decisions and predictions. AI already exists in many of our lives.

  • Have you ever asked SIRI, Google Now, Cortana, or Amazon Echo anything? – AI

  • You know how Google photos (and other software) looks for faces in photos and groups them together accordingly? – AI

  • Remember when that IBM computer, Watson, beat those guys in Jeopardy? You guessed it – AI

  • Cars that drive themselves? – AI

Here’s a few other ways AI probably also impacts our life right now.

Before I get into how this should change the way we educate, you need to listen to this four minute segment of The Tim Ferris Show podcast in which Tim interviews Kevin Kelly, the co-creator of Wired Magazine.

Go directly to the part of the interview where Kevin talks about how artificial intelligence will be as disruptive as the industrial revolution (by clicking the link), come back to this post, and read on.


If what Kevin says is right, and it probably is, then we need to drastically rethink how we educate and what we value in education. Here’s a few skills we need everyone in society to have in a world that’s drastically different from anything we’ve ever known.

Question

Answers are easy and will only get easier.

You may be thinking, “not all answers are easy.”

You’re right. But many of the answers that are difficult to answer are generated by quality questions first. These questions are often deeper than most realize. In fact, the question is often the most important part of the process. If you’re answering a worthwhile question then it’s likely that you’ve spent some time framing and developing it. Take this example Warren Berger cites in his book A More Beautiful Question.

The developing world has a shortage of incubators. For years, health organizations and philanthropic groups asked the logical question: How can we get more incubators to the places that need them? A relatively straight-forward answer to that question was – donate them. But that was the right answer to the wrong question. This led to thousands of incubators being donated to poor nations, “only to end up in ‘incubator graveyards,'” as the New York Times reported. … The better question, which was eventually asked by health officials working on the problem, was Why aren’t people in the developing world using the incubators they have?

As it turned out, the problem was that people in the developing world didn’t have parts to fix the incubators (and other donated medical equipment) when they broke. The solution became to build incubators out of mostly car parts, as these were much more abundant.

Had the question not been reframed people would’ve continued with the easy answer to the wrong question. The technologies that will develop over the next decade will require a society that can ask the right questions.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s an Einstein quote, and here are a few more if you still don’t buy it.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution I would spend 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes?” – Albert Einstein

Create

Consider what computers can do now. They can drive cars, analyze photographs, win chess games, and predict the song you want to listen to next, among other things.

Consider what computers can’t do now. They can’t design a more fuel efficient car. They can’t take a photograph of your child that’s worth hanging in your living room. They can’t develop new games. They can’t write a song.

They can’t create. At least not yet.

This leaves the creation to people. Everybody says this and it’s because they’re right and it’s true.

Assembly line work is dead or dying.

We can’t educate for that world. We need to educate for a world that we don’t even understand and can’t predict. But given the information we have now it certainly seems that people that can create, or work on teams that create, will be the ones that are least likely to be replaced by robots.

Reason

Technology will bring with it many solutions but also many problems. More and more society will be at the mercy of algorithms.

Consider how Facebook tweaked news feeds to determine how it affected people’s moods. Are we, as a society, okay with that?

Kevin Kelly brought up an interesting point in regards to self-driving cars.

Should the car favor the driver or the passenger in an imminent accident?

How far do we take our knowledge of genetics and human genome modification?

To what extent do we sacrifice our privacy in the name of safety?

What are the ethics of making physical attacks through computers?

There are a plethora of other questions that will arise. With great change comes difficult questions that society will have to answer. Members of society will need the ability to reason logically. They need to be able to reason in contexts where there is no simple answer. Students that think most problems are simple and straightforward often become adults that think the same, failing to realize the complexities in problems. A healthy democracy thrives on a society’s ability to have healthy, rational discourse. Anybody that’s seen social media or cable news can see this slipping away quickly, and I fear a society that can’t think beyond the soundbites will fall to those that know how to control them.


We can teach these skills in classrooms. We can develop our classrooms in ways that foster questioning, creation, and reasoning. But this means that many of us need to shift how we teach what we teach. We can’t simply continue to value only answers, giving students the illusion that the world they’ll live in will be simple. A world in which the important questions don’t have four choices and a bubble to fill in.

I’m not arguing that knowing is dead. But “knowing stuff” will certainly become less and less valuable as knowing what to do with the stuff you know becomes more valuable. The skills that we need to know (questioning, creating, learning, reasoning, etc.) help us connect the knowledge “dots” in the world. It will be more important to know how to attain certain knowledge than to have/store it. A person needs to be able to find information, skeptically analyze it, then integrate it and apply it to the information they already have.

If we can’t help students develop these skills then we’ll fail as educators. Our job is to prepare our students for the world they’ll live most of their lives in. In many ways that world is shrouded in unknowns. But the skills I’ve outlined above will almost certainly always be needed to thrive.

I am not going to be the one that buries my head in the sand and in 20 years says, “I didn’t know it was coming.”

And I get that t’s scary. Assembly line education makes sense and is straightforward. It’s what most of grew up with. It makes sense.

Teach vocab word. Practice vocab word. Test vocab word. Know vocab word. Learn next vocab word. And so on.

See nail. Grab hammer. Strike nail.

The problem is that computers are good at that. Better than people and only going to get better.

The scary part is that teaching the skills outlined above is fuzzier. It’s difficult to isolate it down to a data point. It requires teachers with knowledge of how to teach the skills and trust in the teachers to teach them. This is scary for teachers and administrators and probably most people in education. But it’s the skill set that the average member of society will need in the near future and it’s our prerogative to teach it.

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