Science fiction has always been a genre that has captured my imagination through the exploration of new worlds and technologies that seemed impossible at the time they were written. What really fires my curiosity and sparks my thinking is the fact that many of these imaginative ideas have become a reality, making science fiction a precursor to science fact.
One of the most famous science fiction writers of all time, Isaac Asimov, wrote a short story in 1956 titled “The Last Question” that pondered the future of humanity and artificial intelligence. Asimov imagined a future where humanity had created a supercomputer that could answer any question, including the ultimate question of how to reverse entropy. The story ends with the computer finally answering the last question, but the answer is left for the reader to interpret in a deeply philosophical and existential way. Today, we are closer than ever to Asimov’s vision, and it is artificial intelligence (AI) that has captured the attention of the world with the explosion of large language model tools like ChatGPT from OpenAI. Founded in 2016, with close to 400 employees, OpenAI is currently valued at $29 Billion (US). For those who have not yet heard of their ChatGPT tool that has taken the world by storm since its launch in November, it can do things like write plagiarism free essays, write computer code, assist programmers with debugging incorrect code, act as a research assistant by succinctly summarizing large bodies of texts, solve sophisticated mathematical problems, compose music, and explain complicated concepts in age-appropriate ways.
Tools like ChatGPT are just the tip of the AI-iceberg, however. Those that have worked in AI for many years have spoken of its impending arrival into mainstream society and the disruptive impacts possible through its potential. Having studied early forms of AI such as neural networks and machine learning in my undergraduate degree, the speed at which AI is now advancing is astonishing, but not surprising, given the law of accelerating returns. Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns argues that the rate of technological change is not linear, but exponential. We are seeing this now with the seeming overnight proliferation of AI-based technologies that can automatically edit videos, create artwork, compose original scores, beat the world’s best Chess, Poker, and Go players, create deepfakes, and generate conversational chatbots that have the persona of famous people who are now deceased. Other examples that are fundamentally changing the world we live in, driven by AI, include autonomous vehicles, automated manufacturing, smart assistants, healthcare, financial investing, scheduling, marketing, and public relations – to just name a few.
As a school we cannot ignore the inexorable progress of technology and the implications this has for our young people. They will be entering a world of AI-assisted learning, work, and life, and those who understand how to harness its power will have distinct advantages over those who don’t. Even greater advantage will be available to those people who understand how AI works, how it is developed, by who, and for whom, to ensure that we are aware of the many biases that could find its way into these new technologies. By understanding the technology from the inside out, it will ensure (at least for the foreseeable future) that we are not just passive consumers, but rather we continue to be the creators, to have agency over the technologies at our disposal.
At Westbourne we understand the importance of this conversation. Of course, we are discussing academic integrity and looking at how to assess the learning of young people in a world that is undergoing rapid change. We will also be engaging in these conversations with your child as appropriate and examining ways in which AI, like the abacus, pocket calculator, personal computer, and search engines that have come before, to see how AI can assist and enhance children’s learning. One of my colleagues once said that if we make the simple things simple, then we make complexity possible. This is what AI will invite, I think. A calibration or refocus on the ‘how’ – how we as teachers can focus on equipping students with the ability to think critically, deal with increasingly large amounts of information and impossibly big data sets, to synthesise, evaluate, solve difficult problems with incomplete information, and to develop the most fundamental skill of a modern education – learning how to learn. This is integral to our teaching and learning philosophy that aims to equip our young people with the skills, tools, dispositions, attitudes, and attributes to embrace any possible future. AI is part of that future. Of course, this will be balanced with the development of young people who are happy, healthy, resilient, self-aware, and ultimately, good people.
It’s an exciting time to be alive, and the future of AI and education is full of possibilities. Possibilities that extend our imagination and harness the full potential of what it is to be human.