AI and School Leavers: Some Thoughts.

It is an age-old story. ‘Artificial Intelligence’ joins a long line of phrases that are ascribed to the disrupters of vested interests. Their definitions generate illogical (and hence credible) fear, quite possibly by design. 

Here is my take on AI in five sentences:

– While AI plays a leading part in the current disruption, it remains a double misnomer: too different to be artificial, and only a mimic of fluid intelligence, lacking any strain of conscious thought upon which all creativity and values depend. 

– And this is why AI is not a freestanding, intelligent artifice and presents no competitive threat to humanity: dangerous – yes; an existential threat – no.

– AI is civilisation changing data handling tech that can be purposed to perform many human tasks, all based on predictive assumptions born out of vast processing power and unimaginable quantities of unstructured data: it is almost wholly functional. 

– And yet AI presents in its most fearsome guises as going well beyond dangerous to a sort of twenty-first century form of witchcraft, or a digital barbarian horde at the gate. 

– This is standard scaremongering. 

And this is why schools that express their focus on AI in marketing material might want to just take a step back and concentrate on helping children to become useful and socialised adults, by drawing on the classical doctrines of a liberal arts education that includes rigorous grounding in logic, analytical skills, science and maths. Helping children ‘prepare for careers that do not exist’ is by no means a certain need.

So, if it’s not all about AI, what is going on? Let me help myself to a ‘Full Uri Geller’ and make ten wholly positive predictions:

1. Technology will remain compliant to genuine scholarship; and the majority of professions will evolve with tech as they always have – few disappear or are invented anew. 

2. At a lower cognitive level: tech generates tech;  tech born efficiency repurposes jobs; and creates wealth that demands skills (try using a robot to hang silk damask, hand-painted wallpaper).

3. The future is right there, where it always has been – in the minds of the children. Wealth creation, culture and security lies in the creative young. Fluid intelligence dies with youth. Reproducing youth is indescribably slower and costlier than duplicating digital repositories of crystallised knowledge. This in itself gives a far higher ‘rarity ratio’ of fluid to crystallised knowledge. It follows that young minds are more precious than at any time in recorded history.

4. And it also suggests that, given the revolution of access to crystallised knowledge, youthful inventiveness will produce rapidly expanding returns.

5. We are seeing the continuation of a powerful historical progression that is accelerated by tech, not governed by it. Self-help, apprenticeship and inventive, individual wealth creation has contributed more to Britain’s phenomenal culture of enterprise and social mobility than the very recent culture of joining training schemes at universities and large companies.

6. The current disruption has resulted in the elite finding alternatives to  twentieth century, bureaucratised capitalism. Many high rise temples of wealth now lie half empty. The support of large organisations to maintain talent remains, but is less necessary than ever. More high-end work may be conducted in insular capacities and by micro companies, while access to much of the information required to work and research is unconstrained by geography or locked library archives.

7. For the aspirational elite, the long term evolution of this ubiquitous workplace will be impacted less by AI than a new generation of highly individualistic tech-literate youth, that has not been corralled into conventional employment; and probably never will be. This non-corporate, youth driven culture will continue to reassert itself. They will construct their own, more efficient pathways to financial independence, with scant need of employment as we know it – training will be affordable to access online. These pathways will conspire with enterprise to generate more wealth, and thus independence, earlier in adulthood, across a wide social spectrum of driven youth.

8.  The survival of conventional training and employment depends on being adeptly and constantly responsive to individualistic young wealth creators, designers and thinkers; in fact, education and training will probably become subservient to them. 

9. Tech purposed by bad guys, environmental despoiling and digitally enhanced autocracy will present gargantuan dangers to freedom that require youthful minds to solve. And solve them they will, with AI will playing a critical part.

10. Society will be more cohesive and technology more secure if universities and other institutions (commercial or otherwise) evolve to a state where this talented mass of youth will agree to work within their relatively static structures. Universities and graduate employers must promote activity beyond their courses and build communities rather than tolerate strikes; employers must promote ‘intrapreneurial’ start ups. No easy task.