There’s nothing like technology for inspiring unfounded hopes and fears. Think of all those earnest Victorian prophets of doom who thought railways would corrupt both body and soul, or all those equally earnest 1920s Soviets who believed tractors and electrification would bring about the new utopia. Sometimes they even renamed themselves “Tractor” and “Electrification”, but that’s another story. Today, the debate is still going on: indeed, we can see its political effects all around us. As manufacturing becomes increasingly automated, jobs are lost. Some see this as giving us more free time to do what we want; others see only rising inequality, as the machines cut workers’ pay and funnel wealth straight to the bosses. It’s part of the environmental debate too – some say machines are destroying the world; others see high technology as the only way of saving it. Which group is right?
The obvious answer is “both and neither – and don’t ask silly questions”. What the technology debate really needs is nuance; of course technology is a tool, neither inherently good nor evil. It’s about how we use it and the systems we put in place to mitigate its harmful effects and encourage its good ones. At this year’s OEB, we’re looking to provide some of that nuance in our annual Plenary Debate on the motion entitled “This house believes artificial intelligence (AI) could, should and will replace teachers”.
This is not only a debate about the capabilities of technology, but also about its ethical implications. Granted, it’s impressive that people are now walking around with little AIs in their pockets. However, there are few who would disagree that the degree of “intelligence” manufactured so far falls abysmally short of replicating that of any human. Before we start wondering whether super-intelligent AIs are going to destroy the world, we should first work out whether they will ever exist.
In this particular case, it’s as much a question of philosophy as of technological practicality. What exactly is a teacher? Some would say that in many schools, teachers have become little more than devices for transmitting information in the hope of achieving defined educational outcomes and that these functions can be taken over – and even improved on – by a machine. For Donald Clark (proposition) the case for teaching bots is fairly obvious: they would be “free from cognitive… racial, gender and socio-economic biases. They never get ill, don’t forget much of what they are taught, operate 24/7, and can deliver from anywhere to anywhere where there is an internet connection. Unlike our brains they don’t sleep for eight hours a day and, in a fatal objection to human frailty, neither get burnt out, retire or die.”
Our educational tradition, however, places teachers a little higher than this. For Nell Watson (opposition), a teacher has many roles that artificial intelligence can never replace. “I can foresee machines being excellent coaches (trainers), perhaps better than humans” she says, “but as for replacing the best mentors (teachers), I doubt that machines will realistically challenge the role of people in that regard any time soon.” She adds, “Teaching involves a strong desire to bring out the very best of the whole person, to watch them blossom in multiple dimensions, as the knowledge that they have earned distils into their being.”
Furthermore, Watson worries that the introduction of technology in education is already distracting from this fundamental mentoring relationship and inspiring a “testing and tracking culture” – students becoming “nails” with “algorithmic hammers smashing them back into place”.
There’s no doubt, however, that reality sometimes falls far short of the vision of the ideal teacher-pupil relationship. Education costs are rising, and top quality teachers aren’t two a penny either.
We must also come back to the idea of technology and education as levellers. If we can make AIs that are as effective as the best teachers and much cheaper, we can scale the latter out rapidly, reducing inequality in education. And because education inequality is one of the big factors behind wealth inequality, this will have a knock-on effect on the whole of society.
Yes, it’s true that many small-scale manufacturers lost out in the short term to that earlier round of automation, the industrial revolution. However, if it weren’t for the leisure time and financial opportunities that mass production affords us, the progeny of a lot of fletchers, coopers, and cartwrights would still be slaving away making arrows, barrels, and carriages like their forebears, rather than attending university.
But does this vision – more leisure, more equality – match up to the way society appears to be headed? Andrew Keen (opposition) says not. “The problem is that in our winner-take-all tech economy, the AI economy will be controlled by a tiny handful of winners – Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. All the wealth goes to them, and inequality is compounded throughout society.”
Furthermore, as automation increases, there will be precious few ways for the newly unemployed teachers to support themselves in the AI future. Keen says, “Driving cars maybe. Whoops, we’ve got self-driving cars. Or becoming lawyers or doctors. Good luck with that. Those professions are being automated, too. In fact, 47% of all jobs are going to go away in the next ten years. I guess they can all rent their spare room out on Airbnb.”
The issue of wealth inequality – caused by globalisation – has become political dynamite in recent years. This means there’s no better time to be having this discussion. The OEB Plenary Debate is a perennial favourite at the Conference, known for its passion, humour, and high levels of audience participation. Join us in Berlin, where taking to the stage will be
Christoph Benzmüller, Freie Universität Berlin & Heisenberg Research Fellow of the German National Research Foundation (DFG);
Donald Clark, entrepreneur, investor, blogger and edTech all-rounder
Nell Watson, founder of Poikos, Belgium, entrepreneur and futurist thinker
Andrew Keen, author of The Internet is not the answer and executive director of salonFutureCast.