Artificial Intelligence, the Future of Work, and Implications for Education

Artificial intelligence is changing work, and it has implications for education as well. About a decade ago, if you attended any education keynote, you would often find the speaker reassuring people who technology will not replace teachers. However, teachers with technology will replace teachers without, they would reassure us. This was an attempt to assert a personal and collective set of convictions about the human-centered nature of teaching and learning. This is why, even if we gathered definitive research to show that students can learn math and apply what they learn better through computer-aided instruction with a room of fifty other students and only one teacher/guide, many would outright reject the research.

This opposition comes from many places. Many teachers think of themselves as more than people who help students meet standards. They have days of conflict resolution, encouraging, caring and showing compassion, mentoring, coaching, instructing, protecting, personalizing, and so much more. For many, suggesting that a computer or artificially intelligent appliance could  do what they do  would be akin to saying that there is research to show that robots can raise children as well as human parents. It is not just about the outcomes. There is something hard to measure but easy to value in this conversation.

At the same time, that does not mean that education, the workplace, and society will not be eventually transformed by the growth and development of artificial intelligence and the many associated technologies. The robot workforce is not just a science fiction dream. It is already a reality in some places, and it will continue to expand into many areas. There will be rapid changes in some domains, but setbacks and tragedies will also delay (but not stop) its application in other areas of work and life.

This will be both an ethical and legal battleground. The policies and laws in place will be challenged, but those striving to hold back the robotic and artificially intelligent workforce will ultimately fail. People might celebrate short-term wins, but the promise of what these technologies can do in healthcare and other parts of life will lead to the majority embracing and even celebrating these advancements, even as some are losing their jobs.

What are the implications for education? I offer five things that are especially important for us to consider.

1. Study the future of work.

Few of us are devoting time and attention to the emerging nature of work in this increasingly and emergent technological world.We must abandon the outdated skepticism that this is just science fiction. These are real developments, and while schooling is about more than preparation for work, preparing people for the jobs the future remains important. I am not suggesting an immediate change of curriculum or anything of the sort. I am simply arguing that we are wise to take more time to better understand the important debates and research in this area.

2. Teach the Debate

There are important ethical considerations in this, and we are better off if more people are grappling with them. Cyborg technology is already a part of life today, and it will become even more commonplace not only in healthcare but in the workplace and popular culture. It brings with it affordances and limitations, and equipping people to be informed citizens and humans involves better preparing ourselves and others in these areas. We can and need to make decisions about how all of this unfolds, and being informed is a good place to start.

For example, in March of 2017, Elon Musk started a new company called Neuralink that conducts medical research intended to create connections between the brain and computers, allowing a synergistic interaction between the two. Over the years, Musk has been open about his concerns that artificially intelligent beings will exceed human capacities so much that they will make us seem like a pet compared to them. Musk believes that enhancing human capabilities through technology is a means of avoiding that undesirable future. Whether you agree or disagree with Musk, these are important considerations for us to consider, even if we do not believe in the risk of a full-blow Matrix or Terminator future.

Even on the more mundane level, it is important to help people make sense of the benefits, limitations, and possibilities for life in a connected age. How do we help people become analytical and wise in their thoughts, actions, and decisions in these areas?

3. Human / Technology Interaction

Many people argue that all the technology in school is not showing much of a difference in student learning. When you dig into the research and add more nuanced questions, that is a misleading claim. However, there is another element to all of this. We do not just use technology in education because it produces better learning outcomes. We also do so because this is technology that is increasingly commonplace in the contemporary world. We do not teach students to use fountain pens today. We do not require students to use personal slate board in many classes (although they are a brilliant innovation that still find use in some classes and different parts of the world).

We find ourselves in a transition period where people are beginning to wonder about the future of handwriting (I have another article on that debate). We saw the calculator debate and still do in some places. We even find a few people who insist that students should hand write the first drafts of their papers instead of using a word processor. These are just small and simple examples of the more complex considerations at work today.

Most jobs today call for humans to connect to and use technology to accomplish the work. That is the future as well. It is just that the connections and use will become increasingly complex. If we can help people become more literate about the nature of that connection, we will be doing them a great service. This is why I am increasingly convinced that basic computer programming at some point is a useful way of helping people develop at least a basic literacy about the programmed world around them.

4. Life and Not Just Work

Human life is about more than work and productivity. The value of a human life is not measured by that person’s demand in the workforce. I believe that we are wise to reinforce and celebrate this message. We can also strive to create deeply human and compassionate communities where people learn and connect.

5. Preparing Leaders for this Field

It is time to start encouraging more young people to think about how they might play a role in creating, curbing, and shaping this future of AI, work, and education. We will need more insightful, creative, grounded, ethical people to be involved in what happens.

AI and the world of robotics is changing life and work. It will continue to do so, and this has important implications for education. It is time for us to invest the necessary time and effort to think through these implications.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.