Prof. Somdev Chatterjee, Assistant Professor – Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Kolkata
In December 2022, Open AI released their artificial intelligence powered chatbot Chat GPT that can interact with users in human language and it has already taken the internet by storm, reaching the milestone of a million users in a mere five days. One of the main capabilities of ChatGPT is its ability to generate text that is difficult to distinguish from that written by a human. The chatbot can respond to questions in human language, summarise books, write essays, stories and poems, and even imitate the style of specific writers.
The responses to this new generation of AI powered software, has been predictably extreme, ranging from panic (widespread fears about A.I. destroying jobs) to exhilaration (the valuation of Open AI zoomed to 29 billion dollars within a few weeks of Chat GPT becoming available to the public). Some of this may be hype, and perhaps with time we will have a more sober understanding of the effect this innovation is going to have. However, the effect of this on the field of education has been felt immediately. Essays or theses which would take students weeks to write can now be written in minutes. You do not even need to be well-versed in the subject. You ask the software to outline an essay on a particular subject, take each point of the outline and then ask the software to elucidate it. That is it! It should come as no surprise that Universities and schools from across the globe have banned the use of this software in class. Some have gone back to pen and paper examinations.
Need to rethink the goal of education
Of course, the banning of a particular app in class is at best a knee-jerk, defensive reaction. Life outside the classroom is an open book examination, and the purpose of education is to prepare students for it.
Most studies of the effect of artificial intelligence on education tend to focus on its possibilities as a tool, or the threats they pose in terms of making teachers obsolete. There is no doubt that AI has the potential to greatly enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of human education in a number of ways. It can be used to personalise learning experiences, adapt teaching methods to individual student needs, and provide real-time feedback to both students and teachers. AI-powered tutoring systems can also help students learn at their own pace and provide additional support for those who need it. Besides, AI can be used to analyse large amounts of data to identify patterns and improve educational outcomes. The fears of the need for teachers being vastly reduced are not also unfounded. Besides, teachers would need to be able to work with A.I, thus requiring significant relearning for them as well. However, there is another, less discussed aspect of the effect of A.I. in education that we can no longer be blind to. The skills and knowledge that students need to acquire during their education depend on the environment they will have to negotiate afterwards in their careers and personal lives, and the advent of AI is going to radically change that environment.
As the world changes in response to advancements in AI, there will inevitably be a great change in the kind of skills that will be needed in the future. Contrary to expectations, advances in artificial intelligence have been far more impressive in the areas of cognitive tasks than in robotics, with the result that the jobs of today’s knowledge workers are more under threat than that of the blue-collar workers. Our children’s probability of success obviously depends on them acquiring skills that would be in tune with the needs of the future – including ones that could be very different from those that are needed today. And it is not immediately clear what those skills may be.
The question is as urgent as it is hard to answer. The advent of artificial intelligence is without doubt the biggest technological disruption we have experienced since the internet. All technological disruptions, whether it is the steam engine, the computer or the internet have also created tectonic shifts in our social fabric, creating a new breed of winners, and those who were left behind. And with each new technology, the time it has taken to create this division has come down.
Unpacking the benefit(s) of education
When one learns computer programming, one’s ‘education’ can be broadly categorised under three heads:
(a) Learning the core concepts of computer science (what is a computer? What does it do? What is a program? How many kinds of programs are there, etc.)?
(b) Learning to write computer code – a specialised skill
(c) Learning logical thinking, structuring, etc – General cognitive abilities which are vital to gain.
Traditionally, all three types of learning would be bundled together, as all three were needed to be successful in the field. But increasingly, the first two can be learnt better by a student through an A.I. powered MOOC than in a physical classroom. Also the specific skill sets needed in the workplace will keep changing. The third component, however, is at least as necessary as it ever was.
One possible way to prepare future students for this new era could be replacing traditional curricula and course structures with a system where students will largely learn the first and second components listed above largely on their own by interacting with artificial intelligence ( with some guidance from teachers, of course) while the human interactions in class could be more focused on developing cognitive abilities and social skills.
For example, in a classroom a teacher would teach them:
How to think scientifically, instead of the properties of carbon compounds
How to write an essay, rather than the principal characteristics of postmodernism?
How to think critically and argue in good faith, rather than the history of philosophy.
More than a specific set of skills or a body of information remembered, the principal quality of students who go through their time in class (which may be only a fraction of the time they spend learning) would be that they would have great cognitive skills, be able to continually learn by themselves and use technology fruitfully, that is as a force multiplier, not a crutch. Their life and career paths would not be defined by the subjects they specialised in during the three or four years they spent in college, but rather evolve as a series of flexible responses to a rapidly changing environment.
Admittedly this seems to be too radical a break from usual present practice, but there is also a brighter side to all this. If the advent of AI forces us to shift our focus away from acquiring information and narrowly focused marketable skills towards moulding of personality, sharpening general cognitive abilities, encouraging broad-based thinking and self-driven lifelong learning, it may not be such a bad thing. After all, more than a century before A.I. became the rage, a certain Indian sage did say that the ultimate purpose of education was the manifestation of the perfection already in man.
One thing that no A.I. can (yet) do is think for itself. And let us not be under the delusion that a world with A.I. will require any less thinking. Increasingly, we will not merely be asking how to achieve a particular objective, but also which objectives are important, and why. In a world where human and artificial intelligence co-evolve, augment each other and perhaps ultimately merge, questions of ethics, identity and value will be more important than ever before, and need to be decided in contexts that are radically different from anything imagined by our religions, or present social systems.
Like all recent innovations in the field of information technology, this too has the potential to either enhance our minds, or to stultify them. Our success as individuals, and as a society will depend to a large extent on the path we choose, and what we teach our children. All stakeholders – teachers, parents, the state – need to be a part of this discussion. And it needs to happen quickly, because the Pandora’s box has already been opened and unknowingly or not, we are already in competition with individuals and societies that are making the best decisions.