We Need to Talk About AI — And Our Kids
Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t the next big thing. It’s already here, and it’s in more aspects of your life than you know. AI runs automated processes, makes financial decisions, and even recommends what jeans you might want to buy next. So, why isn’t there more focus on it as part of early years STEM education?
STEM and tech education in the U.K. is far from ideal in many school settings. Not enough youngsters pursue STEM subjects to fill the engineering and digital roles available. When it comes to girls in STEM or girls in tech subjects, the numbers drop even further. This is due to a sadly enduring gender bias still evident in the low numbers of women in tech and science roles. Encouraging children of 10 or younger to delve into the digital could prepare them for a world built around AI.
What Kids Need to Know About AI
AI arguably began with Aristotle in the 4th century, who invented a logic specifically for reasoning. Since then machines powered on programmable logic and decision making have beaten world chess champions, searched Antarctica for meteorites, and learned to emulate human emotion.
But artificial intelligence is not true intelligence. It’s just a copy of intelligence, created by teaching a machine to process language, detect patterns, and even understand images. Lots of modern technologies use AI, from photo-sharing aps that want you to connect with like-minded people, to transport apps that show you where your taxi is and how long it will be.
The Potential of AI vs the Risks of AI
Currently, AI ranges from algorithms that recommend videos to you on social media to Deep Mind. That’s a Google partner initiative dedicated to solving the issue of true intelligence in machines. Potential benefits of AI include:
· Faster scientific breakthroughs
· Quicker diagnosis of disease
· Advancement of computer science
· Understanding global issues like climate change and offering solutions
AI, like all technologies, carries risks if not managed or applied in an ethical way. Ethics is a term you’ll hear a lot when researching AI. It’s so crucial, that many governments have their own rules on how tech companies use AI.
The reason for this is that AI is used for making decisions. As a human, you know you make your decisions based on what’s right or wrong. That’s down to your own ethical code. Machines don’t have an ethical code, so need humans to give them one. That means there is always the risk that an AI could exist that makes decisions one person or culture may be happy about, but that another could abhor.
There are rules in place to prevent this from happening. AI protocols for businesses are mandatory, and businesses found to be breaching those face hefty penalties.
However, there need to be more safeguards…. For AI to be fair and just, we need to be able to trust the algorithms. In order to trust algorithms, we need to have an understanding of what data is being used and if that data will lead to ethical decisions. We also need to ensure we have regulations in place before it is deployed.
Giving Kids the Digital Skills They Need
Ideally, our kids should be leaving school with the knowledge and insight to know how to effectively interact with AI. They should also know how to assess potential risks. That means learning about the basics of AI as early as possible.
The pandemic has highlighted the true digital divide in the U.K., and indeed, across the world. Those without access to equipment or the skills to use it struggled to keep up in a world that was working and studying from home. Providing all children with basic digital literacy just makes sense — economically, socially, and ethically. Including AI in that set of digital tools prepares them for whatever challenges they face. That applies whether they go and work for one of the many tech companies making huge innovations in the realm of AI or simply use AI-powered tools within their career.
The AI Council, an independent committee in the U.K., has called upon the government to draw up an AI strategy aimed at giving children the skills and tools they need. As that strategy may be some way off being realized, what can you do as parents to help get your kids AI literate before they reach high school?
· Start asking, “How does this work?”, and find out together — you may be surprised how many day-to-day objects already incorporate AI
· Explore concepts like Machine Learning together, and see how they help or hinder — is it useful or invasive when large retailers suggest items to you based on previous shopping habits or other customers’ profiles?
· Challenge schools to include classes on AI, or host guests and speakers who can introduce kids to the concepts of AI and the ethics involved with more “intelligent” machines
· Look out for digital AI experiments online aimed at kids — there are plenty available and they’re fun to do!
Like any technology, AI is only of concern if we don’t understand it. One of the first crucial steps for kids is learning to code. That’s not just because this skill will be useful no matter what career they choose, but because it teaches children how machines “think”. Kids can learn to think in terms of algorithms and logic, giving them an insight into how AI makes decisions and how they’re applied in technology and media. Building on those skills will give them a set of digital tools that will last a lifetime, effectively future-proofing their career prospects even in the fastest-changing economies.