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Whenever the words Artificial Intelligence crop up in conversation, there is a tendency to start describing a future in conjunction with two words: anxiety and fear. Typically, the subject is portrayed in dystopian terms alongside concepts such as transhumanism, where man and machine merge into a single being. Or a time scale is discussed where the end of employment is rapidly approaching. In such a scenario, machines master almost every job, from doctor to journalist, taxi driver to gardener — consequently destroying the global economy, as we presently understand it at least.
At its most apocalyptic, this dystopian narrative predicts that machines will become conscious agents, outsmart humans, and a war of civilisation will begin. It’s a future where humans end up as slaves to their machine masters. However, such an outcome is usually not the result of any deep-seated analysis of AI, but rather a far-fetched roadmap of sorts, which predicts the future using dystopian Hollywood movies as a guide. Or worse still, taking the religious-like rhetoric of Silicon Valley futurists as gospel.
Indeed, any discourse — either in the tech world, or in mainstream society — relating to AI almost always lacks nuance and context. Particularly, say, how AI could help and support humans, rather than enslave us.
British author, political biographer and academic, Sir Anthony Seldon, was so frustrated at this histrionic portrait of AI in public discourse that he decided to write a book about it.
“AI is coming, and most people don’t understand the full power of it,” the 64-year-old author explains, from his office at the University of Buckingham in the UK, where he currently holds the position as Vice-Chancellor.
Seldon then draws an analogy between 2018 and the year 1886, when Karl Benz discovered the combustion engine and invented the motor car: a move that would rapidly change the globe for the next century.
“This is the moment we are currently at,” Seldon explains. “AI is going to have more impact than the car had. So, it’s better to be optimistic about it than to be ignorant and pessimistic.”
“And by being optimistic, we will shape AI, not just for a narrow sphere of rich giant tech companies, but use it for the interests of all,” Seldon adds.
Given the constant confusion and misapprehension that exists around the term itself, I ask Seldon to succinctly define AI before we take the conversation any further.
“AI is the ability of machines to effectively think for human beings,” Seldon explains. “To understand us individually, and to adapt the flow of information, in reaction to the ever-changing stimuli and signals that we are giving off to those machines.”
“Taking either a two-dimensional hologram or robotic form, AI is a revolutionary concept that will — for the first time in human history — allow us to build machines who can comprehend us individually, and collectively, at a very high level,” Seldon adds.
Or, put in more technical terms, AI is a digitally controlled process by a human-created machine, which perceives its environment and adapts to it, in order to achieve its objectives. Moreover, AI technologies aim to reproduce, or surpass, abilities in computational systems that would require “intelligence” if humans were to perform them.
These machines will make our lives enormously easier, Seldon believes – as they take care of mechanical tasks, such as driving our cars or negotiating our calendars. But they will then begin to take care of more emotional tasks too, such as bringing up our children, and caring for our elderly.
However, it’s in the realm of learning, and more specifically in the classroom, that the revolution of AI will really come into its own, Seldon believes.
“There is no more important issue facing education, or humanity at large, than the fast-approaching revolution of AI,” Seldon writes in the opening chapter of his latest book, The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity.
We tend to hear a great deal about AI in its application to things like transport, medicine, the factory production line, and even welfare. Education, however, Seldon posits, has been comparatively overlooked. His new book aims to fill that void.
“At the moment we have an education system that teaches human beings to be like robots,” Seldon explains. “We need to have an education system that encourages human beings to become full human beings.”
Indeed, it’s an enormous paradox, one could argue, that machines will play such a vital role in making us become more consciously aware of our humanity, driving us to think more critically and express ourselves with far more clarity and sophistication.
“With AI in education we are going to have a broader notion of intelligence and a flowering of everything it means to be a human being,” Seldon adds.
Seldon points out that not only is AI transforming how humans think and interact, it’s changing the very definition of intelligence itself. Intelligence Quotient (IQ) may once have been the most effective way of measuring people’s ability to think effectively and retain information. But that is rapidly changing. Now that it’s accepted that we can bestow intelligence to machines, other forms of human intelligence, which previously were deemed unimportant, are being explained with far more depth and analysis.
“IQ defined intelligence in its own way, for its own ends,” Seldon points out. “It was essentially male, white, middle class, and highly cognitive.”
“I think the measurement of IQ diminished hundreds of millions of human beings whose particular gifts or unique signatures were not in those directions,” Seldon explains:” It basically privileged those who were like the designers of IQ measurements themselves. And it ignored a far broader range of intelligences.
These include, as Seldon points out, curiosity intelligence, emotional intelligence, artistic intelligence, personal intelligence, moral intelligence, spiritual intelligence, collective intelligence, and many other forms of intelligence.
As the title of his book would suggest, Seldon describes this fusing of education and AI as the Fourth Education Revolution: a concept that is closely connected to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which describes the current fusing of technologies and blurring of the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. To understand how education is rapidly changing with the advent of technology, Seldon then briefly turns to the past and the evolution of mass learning.
Seldon draws attention to the fact that the first educational revolution began when Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago. This was the beginnings of learning, when our humanoid forebears gathered around fires and learned how to make clothes and tools, handing this knowledge down to their offspring. The second education revolution began with the rise of institutionalised learning in schools and writing in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. The third revolution began with mass education, helped by the printing press during medieval Europe, and the fourth revolution is the coming of AI, robotics in our present age.
Seldon believes this coming revolution is extremely radical for a number of reasons. Primarily because it will destroy the class barriers that have hitherto existed in education for hundreds of years in the “factory school model” – a term Seldon gives to the third education revolution.
When AI enters the equation, Seldon believes this will change education across the globe in a dramatic fashion: most notably in the developing world. Seldon points out that in the present education system, the best teachers are concentrated in the wealthiest countries and the wealthiest areas within those countries.
“There will soon be an AI specific for each student to tutor them in front of their screen in every subject,” Seldon explains. “So, each student will have a personalised teacher, rather than being taught in a class of 50 or 70 students, or by no teacher at all. And that teacher [in the developing world] will be of the same quality as the most advantaged child living in New York, London, or Milan.”
What kind of implications will that then have for the economic and social divisions which presently exist between the first and third world?
“I think it will have enormous implications,” Seldon responds. “And the implications are ones we must think through very carefully, because the young in the developing world will be far better educated than they presently are. And if there aren’t challenging and interesting jobs to do, there will be great discontent.”
“So, we need to ensure that the rest of society develops in these countries, so that they can keep pace with the educational and cultural aspirations of the newly educated,” Seldon adds.
But inequality isn’t the only area where AI can offer radical solutions to greatly improve education across the globe. AI can also help humans to think more perceptively and with far more clarity.
“The hope with the Fourth Education Revolution is that it helps us think for ourselves,” Seldon says, “as opposed to just thinking along tram lines, which is what the factory school model was based on — always obsessed with finding the right answer in the right way.”
Seldon then turns his attention to the more technical aspects of how these new AI teaching methods will operate. Voice and face recognition will play a crucial role here, he believes. Might there be a danger that machines teaching children will fail to pick up on social cues, for example?
Absolutely not, Seldon insists.
“The eye of the machine, its camera, will be looking at the student, and its microphone will be listening to the student’s voice,” says Seldon. “It will be comprehending the difficulty the student will have, and it will be able to adapt the material, just as teachers do now.”
One of the most common misconceptions about AI is that it necessarily has to involve robots. Robotics and AI are certainly distinct and related disciplines, Seldon posits: “But while robotics is concerned with physical movement and human interaction, AI is about thought and human impact,” Seldon explains.
Robots are obviously important when you are dealing with materials, or a factory production line. But when the technology transfer is from AI to human, you don’t need to have a three-dimensional moving box that can teach the student, Seldon insists: “It can just be on a screen, a headset, or through a hologram. You don’t need to have robots in the classroom or at university.”
While robots will not be parading down the corridors of schools and universities, whipping students into line anytime soon, the look and feel of educational institutions will almost be entirely transformed from their current form, Seldon believes.
“Schools and universities of the future will be more like open plan offices,” Seldon explains. “And overall, it will be a far more pleasant experience for many people, because it will be personalised,” he adds. “It will be about stimulating lifelong knowledge development and capabilities, and not trying to finish everyone off into a finalised product when they are 18-years-of-age. Students will also learn a much broader range of subjects, and there will be far more time in the day for enrichment, group work, problem solving, and collaborative activities too,” Seldon says.
He then cites some examples of educational institutions who are at the forefront of combining digital technology with education.
“Arizona State University has been very successful in adapting technology to a very broad range of needs for students and making a far more successful experience for students,” Seldon explains. “This has been led by an education visionary, Michael Crow, who understands the transformative power of digitalisation and AI.”
There are many universities and schools worldwide that are adapting to technology too. Notably in the UK, Seldon says.
“There are some very imaginative projects looking at the adaptation of the university experience, with a much more personalised, pick-and-mix style of university provision,” says Seldon. “This would be where students no longer have to go to one specific university, but can study one course in, say, Stockholm, and another in Oslo, one in Moscow, and another in Shanghai.”
“Putting together a degree in a much more unique way,” Seldon adds, “with distance learning and a range of other forces, which helps them benefit from AI technology to improve the effectiveness of communication.” Seldon concludes his book with an argument about how AI will play a huge role in spreading democracy around the globe, particularly to authoritarian countries.
“After ancient Athens, it hasn’t been possible [in the democratic process more generally] to gather everyone together in one meeting hall to vote,” says Seldon. “But AI — and more broadly digital technology — can have prospects of everyone having direct say on a whole wide range of issues. And with AI challenging the development of young minds it can help them to think in individual ways, rather than groupthink ways.”
Seldon believes that the United Nations (UN) needs to be at the forefront of this new democratic revolution. “The UN is going to become extraordinarily important for AI,” Seldon insists. Why so?
“Well, who can we trust to oversee AI on a global scale?” Seldon responds rhetorically that: “national governments have their own agendas, as do tech companies.”
“So, I think the UN will come into its own over AI. Because the UN represents the views of all peoples, all nationalities, all faiths and none,” says Seldon. “And it can set the frameworks for AI for the benefit of all of humanity, and not just a section of it.”
Given that almost all the conversation today has been in glowing and positive terms about AI, I conclude by asking Seldon about possible downsides of the technology. Are there any?
“AI has the ability to infantilise us”, Seldon warns. “If machines, for the commercial advantage of the few, are going to make our lives easier and easier, then what makes humanity worthwhile will be taken away from us,” Seldon adds. “So, the risk with AI is less that the machines are going to take over from us, but more that they are going to make us become like couch potatoes without the sharp intellectual challenges and applications that reward us.”
Still, the British author says he’d like to finish our chat on a positive note: “So rather than humans helping humans to become more like machines, the irony is that with AI, you will have machines helping humans to become more fully human,” Seldon concludes.