Sunday, January 7, 2018

Flex, tech, and checks: Preparing the next generation for the A.I. future

I have this one very thoughtful student. The other day, he asked me, "What's the point of any of this when A.I. is going to take all of our jobs?"

Great question, because it is a very real threat. Folks who argue that computers will never make humans obsolete fall prey to the "yeah, but" fallacy.

"Yeah, robots can build cars and stuff, but they'll never beat humans at chess."

"OK, so they're good at chess, but they'll never beat us at Go."

"Yeah, but they can't even tell a cat from a dog."

Except that now they can, and more.

I'll never forget reading about the historic game of Go in which Google's A.I.  beat the human champ. After a particularly surprising move by the computer, one commentator said, 'It's not a human move. I've never seen a human play this move. So beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.'"

In the past, new technologies initially eliminated jobs, then ended up creating more jobs in new areas, but in a world where computers can create beauty, will there be any niches left for humans?

One academic thinks that humans will basically become full-time gamers. Others believe A.I. could lead to a world in which none of us have to work at all. Others, like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking think the A.I. may just get rid of us altogether. This last gloomy option might happen, but as I discussed in my 2013 article, Will humans become obsolete?, I think there are two more good possibilities: 1) A war against the machines, which would probably not go well for us, and 2) A merger between machines and humans. Many would say the merger is already underway. Just look at how much a part of our lives our smart phones are already, and brain-computer interfaces may not be science fiction for long. As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The best way to stay competitive with A.I. is to incorporate it into our own brains.

The likelihood of the merger option leads me to a few conclusions about what we should be teaching the kids:

First, it means we really can't predict what's going to happen with any half-decent degree of certainty. Second, it means our focus should be on getting ready for the merger. What kinds of people will be ready for the merger? It seems to me they will have three characteristics:

1) They will be flexible. One common response to the AI threat is that we should focus humans on the imagined gaps in AI capabilities, things that "only humans can do" and higher order skills, like problem solving or social skills. But assuming computers won't out-perform us in these areas is just the Yeah-but fallacy, and filling these gaps will be a game of Whack-a-Mole, with fewer and fewer moles all the time. Who knows what we'll need to be good at? Instead, be ready for anything, and be ready to shape-shift like crazy.

2) They will really understand math, science, computers and technology. They will be tech-savvy. The Luddite who refuses to get on Facebook is unlikely to be able to get in on these technologies, but the computer programmer will have a distinct advantage. I'm not just talking about  hiring more computer science teachers, though that's a great idea. Kids need to be ready to assimilate diverse technologies into their lives and even their bodies.

3) They will be wealthy enough to afford the augmentations as they arrive on the market. It would be great if this were an egalitarian revolution, but I wouldn't count on it. Kids need to be employable right away and able to get good paying, practical jobs.

So here's our curriculum: Flex, tech, and checks. We need to teach kids to be flexible, take advantage of opportunities and learn new things all the time. For this, they need a strong sense of self-efficacy and a growth mindset. We need to teach them to master new technologies and to understand computers--teach them how to "go borg" starting right now. This means a strong STEM focus. And finally, we need to teach them how to work in a lucrative field so they can make money (STEM works for this, too). It's that simple.

I'm not saying this is all we teach. Flex, tech, and checks is just about practicality. We need equal emphasis on the humanities. We are, for now, still human, and while we wait for what's next, we still need to live fulfilling lives in this humble organic substrate. In my mind, that means art, music, philosophy, writing, and history (sounds a lot like STEAM, now that I think about it). Nor am I saying this will guarantee that our species will not go extinct before the next turn of the century, but it may give us a fighting chance of having a say in what's next.

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