Should We Teach AI Skills to Kids?

If you are a parent, you may be asking: why should my child learn about AI? Recently, the importance of STEM education has been emphasized by many stakeholders. Yet, what is it about learning AI that makes it different from other STEM subjects?

First, it is important to better define what learning AI skills means. Lately, the AI term has been used for any instance a computer acts like a human. This varies from automation of tasks all the way to humanoids like Sophia. Are we talking about educating children to build sentient machines? No, at least not at first. The underlying technology that enables AI is machine learning. Simply put, as hinted by its name, these are algorithms that allow computers to learn directly from data or interaction with an environment rather than through programming. This is not a completely automated process as the data scientist and/or developer must still manage the processes of learning. Yet, at its essence, it is a new paradigm for how to use computers. We go from a programming in which we instruct the computer to carry out tasks to machine learning where we feed the computer with data so it can discover patterns and learn tasks on its own. The question then becomes why should we teach machine learning to our young?

Exposes Them to Coding

While we’ll soon have advanced interfaces for machine learning, some that will allow a “drag-and-drop” experience, for now doing machine learning requires coding. That is good news for educational purposes. I don’t need to rehash here the benefits of coding education. In recent years, there has been a tremendous push to get children to start coding early. Learning to code introduces them to a type of thinking that will help them later in life even if they do not become programmers. It requires logic and mathematical reasoning that can be applied to many endeavors.

Furthermore, generation Z grew up with computers, tablets, and smart phones. They are very comfortable with using them and incorporating them into their world. Yet, while large tech companies have excelled in ensuring no child is left without a device, we have done a poor job in helping them understand what is under the hood of all this technology they use. Learning to code is a way to do exactly that: lift up the hood so they can see how these things work. Doing so empowers them to become creators with technology rather than mere consumers.

Works Well With Gaming

The reality is that AI really started with games. One the first experiments with AI was to make a computer learn to play a game of checkers. Hence, the combination between AI and gaming is rather complementary. While there are now some courses that teach children to build games, teaching AI goes a step further. They actually get to teach the computer to play games. This is important because games are a common part of their world. Teaching AI with games helps kids engage in the topic by bringing it to a territory that is familiar to their imagination.

I suspect that gaming will increasingly become part of education in the near future. What once was the scourge of educators is turning out to be an effective tool to engage children in the learning process. There are clear objectives, instant rewards, and challenges to overcome. Teaching machine learning with games builds and enhances it by giving them an opportunity to fine-tune learning algorithms with objectives that captivate their imagination.

Promotes Data Fluency

Data is the electricity of the 21st century. Helping children understand how to collect, examine, and analyze data sets them up for success in the world of Big Data. We are moving towards a society where data-driven methods are increasingly shaping our future. Consider for example how data is transforming fields like education, criminal courts, and healthcare. This trend shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.

This trend will not be limited to IT jobs. As the sensors become more advanced, data collection will start happening in multi-form ways. Soon fitness programs will be informed, shaped, and measured by body sensors that can provide more precise information about our bodies’ metabolism. Sports like baseball and football are already being transformed by the use of data. It is not far-fetched to assume that our children will eventually be working in jobs or building business that live on data. They may not all become data scientist or analysts, but they will likely need to be familiar with data processes.

Opens up Discussions About Our Humanity

Because AI looms large in science fiction, the topic opens the way for discussions on literature, ethics, philosophy, and social studies. The development of AI forces us to reconsider what it means to be human. Hence, I believe it provides a great platform to add humanities to an otherwise robust STEM subject. AI education can and should include a strong component of reading and writing.

Doing so develops critical thinking and also helps them connect the “how” with the “why.” It is not enough to just learn how to build AI applications but foremost why we should do it. What does it mean to outsource reasoning and decision making to machines? How much automation can happen without compromising human flourishing? You may think these are adult question but we underestimate our children’s ability to reflect deeply about the destiny of humanity. They, more than us, need to think about these issues for they will inherit this world.

If we can start with them early, maybe they can make better choices and clean up the mess we have made.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1: Should kids learn coding? Why?

Q2: How do we best prepare our children for the future?

Q3: How do we teach children about ethics in technology?

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