Educating Humans in an Age of Artificial Intelligence

Special Focus : Reinventing Education for the AI Age
Emerging Technologies and Edtech April 08, 2015

At times it seems we live in a world of science fiction. Space travel is a new commercial industry, auto manufactures are competing to build robotic cars, humans are wearing implanted chips and 3D printed body parts, and tech hubs and accelerators have sprung up in nearly every country.  

As this new world emerges, educators are asking what students should be learning as it becomes increasingly clear artificial intelligence and robots will be performing the majority of jobs currently occupied by humans.

In recent months Lowe’s unveiled a fleet of robotic retail assistants, the Japanese Henn-na hotel announced robotic hospitality workers and UCSF Mission Bay Hospital announced a robotic pharmaceutical delivery fleet. Robotic cars, buses, boats and jets are poised to deliver much larger loads of cargo and people around the planet.

In addition to performing manual and service jobs, artificial intelligence is also performing intellectual jobs in journalism, financial analysis, legal research, and anything involving data, pattern recognition and repetitive intellectual analysis. 

Artificial intelligence is also engaging in self-learning and making break though discoveries–  DARPA just announced a robot taught itself to cook by watching YouTube videos and the biotech startup Berg is currently running human trials on a cancer drug identified by artificial intelligence.

Given that robots and artificial intelligence follow Moore’s Law (increased computing power coupled with declining costs to consumers at exponentially accelerating rates) these technologies should spread through both the developed and developing world faster than did cell phones, tablets and laptops.

While it is obvious students should be learning STEM skills for a world filled with technology, what is less obvious is that humans must also be learning social and emotional skills. This is important for several reasons:

The majority of jobs in the future will likely specialize in social and emotional intelligence

While it is easy to assume humans with technical skills will be the most employable in the future, the opposite may be true. This is because machines are replacing technical jobs, while jobs requiring high levels of social skills are rapidly increasing.  

Over the last fifteen years, jobs in the nonprofit sector (composed primarily of healthcare and education) have dramatically grown, while jobs in other sectors have declined. As of 2010, the nonprofit sector was the third largest employer in the United States, nearly tied with manufacturing and just behind retail. As robots increasingly perform manufacturing and retail jobs, the nonprofit sector may be the largest employer in the United States (and if one includes full time volunteering it took the lead prior to 2003.) The nonprofit sector has also been dramatically growing globally.

Our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly, the ill, children and those suffering severe social challenges and marginalization, need to be surrounded by the most empathetic and compassionate people who can recognize and respond to their needs. It is currently hard for robots to replicate these skills and an increasing number of schools on all continents are starting to teach empathy in the classroom.

Managing a hospital, school, nonprofit or disaster zone also requires very strong social skills. Leaders and employees must work across diverse teams with urgent and competing needs to solve tough challenges in under-resourced environments.  

One of the best ways for young people to learn these skills is to actually practice solving social problems on teams when they are teenagers. This teaches children innovation, originality, creativity, teamwork, leadership and other entrepreneurial and management skills.

These social skills become even more essential when dealing with more complex problem at the national or global level.

Our most complex challenges require both social and technical solutions 

When we think about our biggest challenges today—starvation, disease, inequality, poverty, war, violence—it can be easy to think of technical solutions to fix these challenges.  

Through technology, we can improve agricultural production, invent and distribute new medical solutions, monitor and track violent groups, and provide educational and economic opportunity via the Internet. 

But technology is only half the solution. While we have the technical solutions to contain both the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as well as the Measles outbreak in the United States, social, cultural, political and economic challenges have prevented or delayed their containment. And while we might have the best technical agricultural solutions for impoverished communities, if those communities are riddled with violence or corruption, no one wants to invest in the infrastructure needed to get started.

Some social challenges can last generations, especially if compounded by years of violence or inequality. In the past, people with remarkable humanitarian skills have successfully solved such social problems.  Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Yunus, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. carried out global and historic change using hardly any technology at all. It was their deep understanding of human beings and social systems, and their personal character and integrity that allowed them to lead the world to justice and peace through non-violence.   

As our global problems become more complex, we must develop our human skills of character, charisma, integrity and leadership at the same rate. These skills are harder to learn, but can be learned through role modeling, mentoring and working in environments where such skills are prioritized, protected and celebrated. Reading the autobiographies of great leaders, engaging in practical internships in the social sector and studying philosophy and ethics are also helpful.

Character is essential in an uncertain world

It is interesting to think about whether robots and artificial intelligence could ever develop human social skills. A number of researchers are programming robots to display empathy and engage in caring behavior (for example for assisting the elderly.) Some argue artificial intelligence will be better than humans at solving social problems by optimizing complex variables and determining the best solution in a short time frame. Once robotic cars are online, for example, they will drastically reduce the number of roadway deaths by removing human error. 

Sometimes however, we come across challenges where the solution cannot be fully optimized. Perhaps both choices are equally good or harmful, or it is hard to assess the consequences of consequences of consequences.

When humans are faced with such difficult decisions, the philosopher Ruth Chang claims we can no longer use logic. Instead, whatever decision we make is a choice about who we are and what kind of person we want to become. This is how we build character.

Will artificial intelligence, when faced with situations beyond logic, be able to reflect on who it is and who it wants to become? Or will it default to a random choice?  Perhaps this is the true Turing test.  But for now, our character is something that makes us uniquely human and will be essential in guiding us through our uncertain future.

Darlene Damm leads Ashoka’s relations in the Silicon Valley, is Adjunct Faculty at the Singularity University and has founded two technology start ups.