Review by Alex Beard

20 May 2018, 5:00


The fourth education revolution: Will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity?

By Anthony Seldon

Prediction is very difficult, goes the old joke, particularly when it comes to the future. But it doesn’t stop us trying, especially when it comes to education.

As far back as 1922, Thomas Edison forecast a cinematic revolution in our schools – the motion picture meant we’d finally “obtain one hundred per cent efficiency” in our learning. We’re now rightly wary of geeks bearing gifts; instead we seek to weigh the use of each new technology carefully.

Artificial intelligence is the latest of our inventions – think books, movies, televisions, computers and interactive whiteboards – that promises to transform the way that we learn. But will it really? And, if it does so, in what ways will our schools change? This is the question posed by Anthony Seldon and Oladimeji Adiboye at the beginning of their provocative and engaging new book.

As far back as 1922, Thomas Edison forecast a cinematic revolution in our schools

Revolution number one, we are told, took place hundreds of thousands – even millions – of years ago, when our hominid ancestors first began to learn from one another, developing the ability to transfer knowledge about hand axes, hunting or fire-making from one generation to the next; our species’ cognitive superpower.

The second came around 4,000 BC with the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia: institutions were required for the teaching of this tricky new skill. The printing press and industrialisation led to the third education revolution, bringing education to the masses and giving us the schools we know today.

It’s familiar territory, but the authors go deeper, arguing that today’s factory model has failed in five specific ways: unable to defeat entrenched social immobility, preventing kids progressing at their own pace, overwhelming teachers in mountains of bureaucracy, failing to personalise learning, focusing on a narrow set of knowledge and skills.

Artificial intelligence, they say, can transform all of this. On the questions of what kids should learn, the book is urgent and powerful. It sketches an outline of a holistic education that all children should receive, centred on independent thinking, emotional intelligence – as you’d expect from Seldon, whose advocacy for the pursuit of happiness as an end of schooling is widely-known – and creativity.

The authors want schools to ensure kids can learn for themselves, becoming good citizens and eventually arriving at wisdom. It’s great, too, on the very latest advances in AI. Among the many eminent experts interviewed for the book is Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind, the world’s leading machine learning company, whose DNC – or differential neural computer – taught itself to play chess to beyond-grandmaster standard within just four hours, having been told only the rules of the game. It’s only going to get smarter.

There are similarly compelling peeks at augmented reality, transhumanism and big data. And it’s here perhaps that the book pulls a punch or two. These are big, scary, species-defining technologies, which the authors recognise, going so far as to outline the doomsday scenarios in which humans are wiped out, subjugated, or left to descend into jobless anarchy.

So when it comes to suggesting how they’ll transform our universities and schools, rather than envisioning the digital totalitarianism we see emerging in China or an image of billions of listless humans looking lifelong into laptops, the proposals feel strangely sensible.

Artificial intelligence will give us holographic teachers who adapt learning to the precise needs and motivations of each student from cradle to grave. Personalised learning software will mean students move at their own pace, pursuing their own interests and realising their potential.

Teacher time will be freed, making the profession the most prestigious of the future, and schools will have time to focus on the emotional, social and physical development of children.

“Barely a single facet of this education system will remain unchanged,” they write. And though it’s not always clear how, by the end I was convinced that it’s true. “Ensuring the right education system that develops our full humanity is more important than anything else we might do,” they conclude. For that reason, I urge you to read this thought-provoking book.

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