Today the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence launched their report with a question: AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? Their answer is a classic cocktail of yes, but not really. We are certainly blessed with world leading artificial intelligence (AI) research teams and commercial innovators. That is without doubt, and these experts are ‘ready willing and able’ to drive the AI revolution in what we hope will be the ethically rigorous manner this report demands. However, it is everyone else beyond these experts, and in particular our education system, where there is much work to be done for us to be as ‘ready, willing and able’ as this report demands.
We are facing a perfect storm of big data, sophisticated AI algorithms and vast amounts of cheap computing power and storage. Much of this data is currently freely available and unregulated and many companies are making a great deal of money by using AI and computing power to process this data in ways that most of us know nothing about and without our permission or understanding. The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal is just the tip of a murky iceberg from which more will drift into our paths. Many people claim that ‘data is the new oil’ and it is certainly the case that it is making much money for a few people, just as oil has ever done. However, just like oil, data is crude and it is how we refine it that dictates how it can be used. The refinement of this data by AI is currently largely unregulated. It’s a wild west cyberscape in which the ‘white hats’ are currently losing the day. So how do we prepare for the storm and strengthen the arms of the ‘white hats’? The answer is clear: we do this through education.
The summary of the House of Lords report makes this clear when it states:
“As AI decreases demand for some jobs but creates demand for others, retraining will become a lifelong necessity and pilot initiatives, like the Government’s National Retraining Scheme, could become a vital part of our economy. This will need to be developed in partnership with industry, and lessons must be learned from the apprenticeships scheme. At earlier stages of education, children need to be adequately prepared for working with, and using, AI. For a proportion, this will mean a thorough education in AI-related subjects, requiring adequate resourcing of the computing curriculum and support for teachers. For all children, the basic knowledge and understanding necessary to navigate an AI- driven world will be essential. In particular, we recommend that the ethical design and use of technology becomes an integral part of the curriculum.”
Well done House of Lords – this is spot-on. And it is relevant to everyone – we all need to understand enough about AI to protect ourselves from its use on our data in ways we do not approve, enough to use it effectively at work and leisure, and enough to ensure that it does not disadvantage the already disadvantaged in society. This is an immense task and whilst I applaud the recommendations in the report these are, I’m afraid, merely a drop in the ocean: and it’s a stormy ocean full of icebergs!
For example, a recent Royal Society report on Machine Learning published in April 2017, found that whilst 76% of respondents reported that they were aware that computers could now recognise speech and answer questions, only 9% had heard of ‘machine learning’. The report recognises that people’s understanding of AI varies across different segments of society. with even young people being surprised by the growing extent of AI in automated decision-making processes. We have a tough job on our hands if we are to remedy this – and tinkering with the computer science curriculum, no matter how well intentioned and earnest, is not going to even start to address our needs. The perfect storm will not be calmed if we all learnt to code, because AI is not about coding, it is about designing technology to solve human problems in collaboration with humans. It is a human centred enterprise. The National Retraining schemes is a great idea, but again it is a small drop in a huge pool of millions of people whose jobs and lives are about to be radically redesigned by AI.
In order to be best prepared for the AI revolution, we need an overhaul to our education system from top to bottom if it is to do as the report suggests and prepare “children for life with AI and for a labour market whose needs may well be unpredictable. Education in this context is important for two reasons. First, to improve technological understanding, enabling people to navigate an increasingly digital world, and inform the debate around how AI should, and should not, be used. Second, to ensure that the UK can capitalise on its position as a world leader in the development of AI, and grow this potential.”
Professor Luckin will be one of the panelists for our debate: What if… we really wanted to prepare young people for the age of artificial intelligence? The event takes place on Tuesday 24th April, 17:45-19:00, here at the IOE. Click on the link to book your place.