\Creative and Education Opinion/

Our children are not prepared for the AI era

We need to prepare the next generation to live and work in the age of automation.

By Priya Lakhani

The AI revolution is currently in its more silent stage. While you are almost certain to run into AI today, these encounters are likely to take the form of a Netflix recommendation, an interaction with a smart assistant or an intelligent reply to an email. Perhaps AI will block a fraudulent transaction for you, make a personalised learning recommendation to your child or calculate the optimal route to your destination. 

But these are relatively inconspicuous — after 2030, AI will be far more visible and consequential. By then, the AI takeover will be manifest and increasingly inescapable. It will be radically improving healthcare, with machines curing ailments more quickly than humans. Transport and infrastructure will be overhauled, while AI will help to prevent cybercrime and terrorism. Many unpleasant and risky jobs like mining will be taken care of. The fourth industrial revolution will be upon us. 

Today, most of us are either living with, working with or building AI. In just a decade from now, every single one of us will be.

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Our children are not being prepared for this

As a society, we are wholly unprepared for the radically different way of life that looms on the horizon — and, unless urgent steps are taken, our political-technological frustrations of today will be dwarfed by what lies in store in just 10 years’ time. This lack of preparedness includes our approach to research and development, business policy and public services. 

But we are least prepared by far in education, which is entirely unfit for purpose. Our schools still look largely the same as they did one hundred years ago. We’ve gone from a blackboard to an interactive whiteboard — and that’s about it. 

Children will enter this radically different world lacking the knowledge, skills and personal characteristics required to cope. The age of automation requires wholesale changes to education that have, so far, not materialised.

The age of automation requires wholesale changes to education that have, so far, not materialised.”

Even if automation does create more jobs than it destroys (800 million by 2030, according to McKinsey), many of these will be unrecognisable to those of today. The skills that will be required to survive, such as ‘soft skills’ like teamwork, the ability to adapt to unusual environments and learning how to learn, are lacking in education.

Businesses are also beginning to sound the alarm bells around our low level of AI skill itself. Microsoft said this month that the UK’s AI skills are already falling behind those of other countries. British companies are less AI proficient and their attempts at using AI are far less likely to generate commercial value than their global peers. British workers use AI at half the rate of their global peers, are half as likely to be developing AI and are even less likely to be supervising an AI. With the pandemic seeing technology come to the fore, this skills gap could further hamper Britain’s economic recovery.

What is an AI-ready education system?

If our children are to thrive in the coming AI age, we need to overhaul everything from our primary and secondary schools to how we approach computer science and coding to lifelong learning. We need robust data literacy — we won’t understand the application of AI without understanding data — and at the moment, very few of us do. Only once individuals can comprehend and parse data (and the issues surrounding it) can they then start applying that knowledge creatively, including in AI. This isn’t the naive idea that people should just ‘learn to code’ — it’s that children should be learning how to thrive in a data and technology-driven environment from day one.

“Children should be learning how to thrive in a data and technology-driven environment from day one.”

But an AI-ready education must go far beyond the brick and mortar of traditional schooling, with lifelong learning becoming the expected norm. Here, we are particularly failing — the number of British adults participating in learning is at its lowest on record, dropping by four million in the last decade.

An AI-ready education system is a human one

Education is different to other sectors — children are not workers or mechanical devices and should be treated accordingly. Our work at CENTURY shows that technology and AI can hugely benefit the learning process. But students’ developing minds can only be nurtured by loving humans. Sadly, our education system is so badly run that these very humans are leaving the profession in droves, their natural passion for teaching stretched to the limit by a system that is not fit for purpose.

The solution, therefore, must be an overhaul and streamlining of our education system. We must create a system nimble enough to react to a rapidly-changing environment. At present, our curricula, examination systems and accountability frameworks burden schools and teachers, hamstringing their ability to adequately prepare children for the future.

Ironically, the single most important change our policymakers could make would be to stop making so many unnecessary changes to our education system. No other sector or industry operates in this way — and no other industry is as unprepared for the future as education.

The future of our children — their employment prospects, mental health and life satisfaction — depend on this being corrected.

Priya Lakhani is founder and CEO of CENTURY, an AI education company, and a member of the UK government’s AI Council.

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