Not afraid of the dark

We think AI can destroy us only with killer robots but the real challenge is the disruption it can bring about to the value of workers in modern and not-so-modern economies

It should not be where AI is taking us, but where we are taking AI...
It should not be where AI is taking us, but where we are taking AI...

In Ireland, when electricity was being introduced it brought a wave of questions and fear. Some people worried that their home would catch fire, others believed there was an element of ‘black magic’. Court cases and asylum records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the more extreme cases where people were concerned about electricity being an evil power akin to witchcraft.

While, today, we can laugh at such attitudes, we also understand how the technology brought about a revolution in people’s lives. A lot of work went into harnessing the power of electricity and making sure it was safe for everyday use. When the power of electricity, and its benefits, were structured, it became something that no modern human would ever live without. We are experiencing similar revolutions ourselves today, and one of the main pillars of these changes is artificial intelligence. Like electricity, some people fear it.

Just like with electricity, we must work to understand and maximise the technology for the benefit of all people. We cannot abdicate our responsibility on this: it should not be where AI is taking us, but where we are taking AI. It certainly has the potential to be defining our way of life as much, if not more, than electricity itself.

I was invited to address a conference in Sofia, “Educate to Create 2019 – the Impact of AI on Higher Education”, and the point I made was that AI will affect all elements of education, not just the higher end. It will not only be tech students in Master's programmes who will be dealing with AI, but primary, secondary and lifelong students and educators too.

We think AI can destroy us only with killer robots but the real challenge is the disruption it can bring about to the value of workers in modern and not-so-modern economies

We must not be afraid of it. But standing idle, and letting ourselves be absorbed by the technology, can lead to negative impacts. We must make sure we build it up, for the benefit of the many, and this is especially important in education. We should pose the tough questions early on: What is AI? Where are we taking AI? How can it help us improve the educational experience? How can it help us achieve a more human education, based on good values and social justice? All this in a world needing more people with skills, and desperately needing a learning experience fit for the 21st century: the ability to learn to know, learn to do, learn to be and learn to live together. As Pope Francis recently put this: We need to educate minds, hearts and hands.

AI in education must be built within a framework. A concern of what is happening today is that a lot of AI is operating in a moral vacuum. We’re not really addressing the big ethical questions in AI, especially since there is no regulation or standards for how do it. AI in big data for example is making a lot of important decisions in everyday lives, including in education, and the process falls short of basic transparency standards. Who owns the data? Who controls it? How accurate is it? And what biases are embedded in the ‘black-box’ algorithms behind the technology? Everything is done in a bubble and, if you take recent history with data ownership and privacy in social media, everything happens behind the scenes only for us to realise the shortcomings down the line.

Most importantly, it has to lead us into a better society. When electricity was provided to all, it freed all the people. Had it been used with malicious intent, there could have been a situation where it would have benefitted only the rich, leading to more inequality at that time. With all great scientific achievements, such as electricity or nuclear power, they can either be used for the advancement of human kind, or its destruction.

AI has the potential to disrupt every inch of our lives. The discontent across the western world over the past 10 years started with the financial crisis of 2008, however it was exacerbated by a vast amount of people not having the right skills to make a good living. If AI brings about similar changes it could have very negative outcomes. We think AI can destroy us only with killer robots from the world of science fiction, but the real challenge is the disruption it can bring about to the value of workers in modern and not-so-modern economies, and the after-effects of such devaluation. While we were meeting in Sofia to discuss AI in education, in Geneva the countries with a strong military industrial complex were stopping the United Nations from banning robot killers.

This point was made clear by none other than Stephen Hawking. On artificial intelligence he said: “whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all. Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins.”

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