Fearing the Robots
Last fall I was participating in a workshop for teachers on the future of education. We were generating ideas about what the school experience might be like in the year 2032. The session was fun. Beach balls bopped around the room with brainstorming sparks while we drew our ideas on big chart paper with scented markers. But as the ideas became more innovative, I realized that most of the teachers in my group had stopped contributing. They all had a similar look on their faces, the unmistakeable look of fear.
You see, teachers are forever trying to find their balance on a carnival pendulum ride. Over the course of a robust teaching career, they will experience “the pendulum” swinging from one curricular approach to its polar opposite and everything in between. Their mandates change, the popular buzzwords change, and teachers adjust to these changes. I think the ride has become scarier, and it’s perhaps no longer a pendulum but a roller coaster that is up and down and twisted and steep and is expected to eject teachers from their seats to replace them with robots in the end.
The fear of robots taking over our jobs might cause teachers and all of us who value teachers to fear and resist change so we can keep our dear ones in jobs. But fear shuts down creative thinking, which is the very tool we need to master change and not get overtaken by it.
In order to master fear and thrive, we have to know the real facts about the technology. So, I took this dilemma to Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine and one of the foremost experts about where technological change is taking us.
In our interview, Kelly imagined a scene that will make teachers smile:
“I think that one of the jobs in which humans will become really essential is teaching. If I were to imagine a very positive, slightly utopian scenario it would be that when robots and everyone else are doing all the jobs we don’t like that more humans become teachers and that teaching would be restored in some senses to a high status position. You could certainly imagine a world in which fewer people have to work for this or that, and what would they do? One of the things they could do is teach, not necessarily teaching information but teaching all the other things, like asking questions, that young minds need to know. . . I think that the best teachers in the world will probably be teams of humans plus AI.”
Kelly made four important points in his visionary statement:
- Teaching will continue to be essential.
- Teaching might even be restored to a high-status job as it is in other countries like Japan.
- Teachers will be masters at teaching skills like how to ask and answer questions rather than simply conveying straightforward information.
- The best teachers will be on a team with AI.
The fourth point demands a deeper look.
Teaming with Tech
It may sound a little creepy to partner with a machine, but as Kelly pointed out, we already do this. We collaborate with machines daily as we use our GPS, shout, “Hey, Siri” into our phones, and search the internet. In his fascinating book The Inevitable, Kelly tells the story of how the human-AI team concept is successfully working in the world of chess.
In a 1997 match, IBM’s artificial intelligence (AI) system, Deep Blue (the precursor to Watson), beat world chess grand master Garry Kasparov. After this defeat, Kasparov could have easily despaired that his field of expertise was being invaded by robots. Instead, he came up with a new idea.
What if, instead of fearing AI, he partnered with it?
Kasparov experimented with this concept and now freestyle chess matches are being played all over the world. Kelly described in The Inevitable how these matches work:
“You can play as your unassisted human self, or you can act as the hand for your supersmart chess computer, merely moving its board pieces, or you can play as a ‘centaur,’ which is the human/AI cyborg that Kasparov advocated. A centaur player will listen to the moves suggested by the AI but will occasionally override them—much the way we use the GPS navigation intelligence in our cars.”
As it turns out, human-machine collaborations are powerful; they have beat standalone AI 53 games to 42.
Kelly acknowledged that technology, like Khan Academy’s effort to provide personalized SAT study guides, can be useful to help customize learning for individual students. But he also said that one of the primary weaknesses of AI is the ability to ask questions, let alone teach kids how to ask good questions. He doesn’t foresee the technology getting better on this count for at least a very long time.
So, how might teachers work with machines to free them to do the parts of their jobs that they love most and that only a human can do?
Designing Your Own Future
Teachers, let’s grab hold of our own fate and figure it out for ourselves! We can usurp fear of the unknown with creative thinking—visioning and imagination. Kevin Kelly gave us the catalyst, and we have the imaginative power to direct our own course.
To get started, try this creative thinking exercise. Take some time this summer to relax in the sun and answer these five questions in a way that's enjoyable for you--with words, drawings, a mind map, on a white board, with sidewalk chalk . . .
Five Questions Teachers Can Ask to Create Their Own Best Future
- Start with what's good => What are all of the things you LOVE about teaching?
- Next, strengths => What strengths, unique to you, do you bring to your work?
- What you already do => In what ways do you use technology now to help you teach well?
- Now vent => What are all of the things you don’t like about your current teaching job?
- Finally, dream => What might be all of the ways technology might take on these things you don’t like to free you up to do what you love?
(Keep this in a visioning mode — you don’t have to know if the technology currently exists. Dream big!)
Email me your thoughts and ideas at email@example.com and I’ll do a follow-up post with a teacher-generated vision for the most awesome job of the future!
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