Popular culture and doomsday analysts would have us believe that in an apparently near-future humans will be at war against machines that have artificial intelligence (AI).
From what we know already about AI it would seem to me that the war will be very short.
Should we give up now? Or should we be thinking about this is in a different, non-violent and non-confrontational way?
Getting a grip on AI
I think it is worth coming to a shared understanding of what artificial intelligence is. We can say that any machine that is able to sense its environment and take actions that increase its chances of success in achieving its goals has artificial intelligence.
Currently these goals are ones that are set by humans. The abilities of sensing and acting can be developed because the machine has been provided with some form of processing power by adding in at least one microchip.
In some cases, the machine also has a mechanism to do some task. Think of an ordinary toothbrush, it has no intelligence.
Add a moving arm and a power source and we have a machine with no intelligence that can brush your teeth.
Add a microprocessor that times how long you brush your teeth for, measures the angle of the brush as you hold it, and then sends these pieces of information to your cellphone as a record of your oral hygiene.
Now you have a toothbrush with artificial intelligence. (In this article I want to use the term AI Machine to refer to machines with a form of intelligence.)
More often though artificial intelligence is understood to be the ability of machines to do things that we think of as human: understanding speech, playing games like chess, learning, and problem solving.
We are quite a way away from machines having what we humans have – general intelligence; but computer scientists are working hard to develop this.
Right now, there are several things that AI machines do very well.
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What AI machines can do better than humans
AI machines can store, process and recall information faster than we can.
They are also able to pattern-match to find similarities in data, and much greater quantities of data, than a human.
Many Al machines can come up with more alternatives to a problem and more quickly than a human.
And because they don't have the emotional component of learning we do, they learn faster. In fact, AI machines are probably the most desirable learner.
What humans can do better than AI machines
Humans do ‘being human’ better than AI machines. And what is ‘being human’? I think most importantly, it is about being able to work with other human beings in an emotionally engaged way to meet their and our own needs.
If you would like a perfect example of this emotional failure on the part of AI machines, find a copy of the somewhat dated, but highly relevant short story Computers don't argue by Gordon R. Dickson.
Written in 1965 it tells the story of when a computer gets it wrong, and has no empathy, or critical thinking skills.
Getting to win-win with Al machines
A quick internet search will reveal several Al machines tools that we currently use in our personal lives.
From smartphones (helping us take perfect selfies in the camera app, and the predictive text in messaging apps) to social media (ever wondered why you need to sign out of your personal YouTube account before teaching a class?) to finding your way to a training venue (using a navigation device).
It is important to remember that we are (mostly) comfortable users of these AI machines.
This is where the future and win-win will come from – the confident and competent use of Al machines to do what we need.
I believe that in the future it is not only how well you work with other humans that will be important, but also how well you work with Al machines.
Critical thinking skills, innovation and creativity are often cited as what humans do better than Al machines. But I think the future is in combining our strengths.
As you can read HERE scientists used an AI machine to find a new antibiotic medication.
The AI machine examined more than a hundred million chemical compounds in a few days to identify potential antibiotics that kill bacteria in ways that are currently not used in drugs.
The scientists built on the AI machine’s work to get to the drug.
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What this all means for teachers
When we truly appreciate that a storage device is better than a brain to remember things; that an Al machine can think faster and process more accurately than humans; and that being able to manage our emotions is vital to a successful life, we will be able to look at what we teach, and how we teach it.
Let's be clear. I am not proposing that we leave all content knowledge to computers.
Just as computers need information to work, so too do we need foundational information and skills (reading, writing, basic general knowledge) to develop creative and critical thinking as well as empathy for others.
What we do need is to find the best balance of foundational knowledge and skills and ‘being human’ These.
‘being human’ skills include personal emotional management, collaboration, being open-minded, being able to learn, relearn and unlearn knowledge as well as beliefs.
Perhaps quite a tall order – but worth it I think if we wish to meet AI machines with confidence in the future. They are only going to get more intelligent: we need to be more human in response.
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