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The Future of Society in the Face of AI

The Need for Mass Coding Literacy

We are no longer on the dawn of an era when technology pervades our lives; it’s our everyday reality. New technologies emerge daily allowing more and more processes to be automated – for our convenience; for consumption; for a piece of the worldwide market share. Technology, computers, even the WWW, have become essential to our daily lives, from social to work-related needs. Computers are integral, and yet, so few people know how they work.

In the dawn of easy-to-use software that ensures user-friendly interfaces and little training requirements, it almost seems trivial to know how the software was made, and yet it is this very knowledge is crucial for future (and even current) generations.

Future Outlook on Computing Literacy

EurActive and Microsoft claim that 90% of jobs worldwide today require basic ICT skills, and estimate that, by 2020, Europe alone will have a shortage of over 800,000 workers in the sector.In the United States, students who are interested in computer programming are rare. In 2012 only 14,517 from the entire high-school population of the United States of America took the course.

In our ecosystem, computer programming is the language of the future, and the global population is woefully illiterate.
This illiteracy will cause a new divide in social classes, just as it did for the generations before us. What’s more, we are on the brink where artificial intelligence (AI) is not a matter of if, but a matter of when. If computer science isn’t taught within the core curriculum from primary school onwards, like mathematics and English are, future generations risk being divided between the literate and illiterate.

The Issue of Coding Illiteracy

Technology has rapidly changed in a very short period of time. It has not only changed the way we live, it has changed the way we think. We as a global society have quickly learned and adapted to using technology to its full advantage.

Of this global population, however, how many truly understand the processes that are involved when creating the software that they are using? To how many people is software a movie-magic ordeal of gibberish, not meant to be comprehended, but impressive nonetheless?

Without understanding how coding works, people are subjected by the man behind the curtain.

The Need for Computer Science to Be Taught Throughout Education

Studies into the benefits of children learning computer programming have been around for decades. The previous emphasis and overall goal when teaching computer science to children, however, wasn’t to teach coding as a skill, but because of a widespread belief that it improved and produced instantly transferable cognitive skills.

While studies have dismissed this idea of how coding can promote cross-skills as a myth, they did determine that preschool aged children could, indeed, learn and understand programming.

By introducing children to the concept of programming from a young age they benefit from:

Several studies have concluded that computer experience had a direct correlation with computer anxiety. Developing teaching tools specifically designed for children will ease them into the subject, and as their experience grows, any related computer anxiety will decrease. Many findings have concluded that when children are actually taught programming, they enjoy it.

Programming Integration Throughout the EU

Countries are already integrating coding at primary school level, however for optimal impact this needs to be a worldwide initiative. For instance, only 9 EU countries out of the 28 have integrated coding into primary school curriculum, and only 12 include it for secondary school students. The further we fall behind in pushing future generations towards being code-literate, the further away we fall from being able to understand and control the way the future develops.
[Users are] the new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world.Meglena Kuvena, World Economic Forum

Kuvena is, of course, talking about our personal data. Without a clear understanding of coding we are vulnerable, because just as the coding itself is hidden, so too is the price.

Benefits of an Early Education Introduction to Programming

By integrating computer science to children from the beginning of their education we can reduce class divide in later years.

1. Reduce Social Divide Between Socioeconomic Barriers

A study conducted by Ove Hatlevik and Knut-Andreas Christophersen determined that, even when computer science is integrated at the secondary school level, there are discrepancies between the abilities of students who come from different upbringings. The study focused on schools in Norway, one of the first countries to include ICT as an ‘essential element’ in their curriculum. Their study has found that, while there are no differences between genders, there is a difference between socioeconomic backgrounds. Their findings conclude that digital inclusion is an issue that schools and teachers need to work with. By introducing computer science at a young age, within the school setting, a student will not be ahead or behind due to their home environment.

2. A Smarter Society for the Next Generation of Tech

Having future generations digitally competent or digitally literate (in many cases, these terms are synonymous) will prepare society for the integration of smarter machines. Artificial intelligence is expected to be fully achieved within a lifetime, and by having a digitally competent population we reduce the risks of placing the power of the future in the hands of a very small population. With more people aware of the processes and algorithms behind software and technology, even just at a theoretical level, will helpreduce the socioeconomic disparity between the literate and illerirate, and can, theoretically, help humanity keep a true A.I. in check. To fully understand how knowledge of commuter coding is especially beneficial in the face of AI, a full breakdown of an AI and its potential uses must be delivered.

The Potential of a True A.I.

Artificial Intelligence, famously described by Alan Turing in his essay ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, has yet to be developed to his specifications. In the simplest terms, he categorizes an AI as a machine that

  1. Cannot be differentiated from a human in its responses
  2. Can be taught.

Thus far, an AI that fulfills his criteria has yet to emerge, although many researchers attest that it is not a matter of if, but when.

(Re)Introducing Tay

One such project was created by Microsoft, despite Bill Gates’ claiming that AI could threaten humanity. They created an AI chatbot for Twitter, describing Tay, as it was called, as ‘a social and cultural experiment’. Within its 24-hour lifespan, Tay had become incredibly racist.

Tay Twitter Bot Profile Picture
Tay Twitter Bot Profile Picture

Tay was built to respond to users and adapt and adopt their language patterns. Due to many users abusing the program, however, the tweets that Tay produced progressively became more and more obscene, forcing Microsoft to disable Tay after only one day.

Tay is just one further project in humanity’s efforts to humanize computers in the hopes that they can be our friends. Siri, Cortana, and other voice-help bots are examples. Without a background understanding of coding, however, the processes these programs use, even the ones that seem to ‘learn’, are beyond us.

How we Perceive the Future of an A.I.

The likelihood that a machine will ever be able to feel however, is a question for the future. What is more likely to occur before a machine can feel emotions is that people will perceive them to be able to. Already, as Byron Reeves and Clifford Ness have observed, people allot social niceties such as politeness to computers, even if they themselves don’t acknowledge it.

On the other side of the debate is the fact that, as Clyde Haberman declares in his article, people fear AI. A survey conducted at Chapman University in 2015 claims that 22% of those who were ‘afraid’ or ‘very afraid’ marked artificial intelligence as a factor. The 2nd and 3rd worst fears for Americans were :

  1. Cyber-terrorism
  2. Corporate tracking of personal data

Artificial Intelligence and Society: The Danger of Mass Idleness

According to Frederick Kile in his article “Artifical Intelligence and Society: A furitive transformation” AI has many more applications and consequences than merely being a humanlike chatbot. The most significant consequence of current and developing technology, regardless of AI, is the displacement of employment. As machines automate jobs, an increasing number of people are being forced to conduct longer and longer levels of schooling to gain transferable skills in the job market, else brave unemployment.Historically farming, for instance, has ‘occupied the vast majority of the world’s population’, and now most employees have been replaced by machinery. With automated, smart machines taking over the work of people, where is this workforce intended to go?

One of the greatest threats of the future according to Kile is that the automation and machine-aided thinking (AMAT) and advancements into AI will change society so suddenly that it will cause mass idleness, a symptom that is cited to be one of the major factors for ‘strife, rebellion, and wars’. War itself will escalate and the brutality that an AI system would have in war would be devastating.

As Kile points out, each technological leap in history has pushed people further and further away from the carnage. With AI, accountability would be null, and as a consequence violence will escalate, just as violence escalated with the introduction of drone-attacks.

Scientists and engineers are not even safe from the displacement caused by AMAT and, in the future, AI, as these technologies will allow fewer and fewer people to accomplish more things. Not educating children about coding and computers is an assured decision for their unemployment and, as Kile notes, the only way to combat a technologically illiterate society is to increase ‘total global production’.

This response, however, will accelerate the further destruction of our ecosystems. The total ramifications technology has on our future requires mass in-depth studies, and appropriate measures to ensure our, and Earth’s, survival is imperative. The simplest measure we can take against an idle, consuming society is to prepare ourselves for a workforce entirely set on the digital realm.

That isn’t to say that technological improvements are necessarily going to destroy us. Individually most inventions are for the betterment of mankind. In light of this, it could be argued that having more people creating programs will reinvest in an open market, and encourage global competition.

This competition will, ideally, negate the effects of mass idleness and spare us the global strife that would surely be our downfall. However, as previously stated, the smarter and better we make our computers and our programs, the less people are needed to maintain them.

If a true AI is created it will learn and inevitably outpace and outsmart humanity. Even with the assumption that the AI will only ever be used for the betterment of all mankind, rather than cater to nationalistic tendencies, there is still the risk of the AI (or many) replacing even digitally competent individuals.

The marketable skill then would be human ingenuity and creativity. As we create machines to replace us, we must transcend them.

The Need for Mass Coding Literacy

Having a larger population of technologically literate individuals could provide better, more concrete answers for future dilemmas. The more a user is familiar with computing, after all, the less daunting tasks are to them. By introducing coding to children at a young age the number of individuals who pursue computer programming later in life will naturally increase, and with this increase a more diverse range of programs and students will emerge.

Not only will this offset the current westernized focus, it will also bring a global community together that could better regulate future technologies. When Google bought the company DeepMind, it did so on the conditions that the AI system could never be used ‘for espionage or defense purposes’ and that an ethics board must oversee its research.

AI systems, if they can be achieved, are inevitable, and having a global population who understands computing, how it works, its benefits, and its consequences, will be needed to police the direction of technology.

Not only would we be better prepared to handle a true A.I., integrating a dynamic, ever-evolving, curriculum that focusses on how computers work, as well as their social implications, is in everyone’s interest. It will direct what would otherwise be an idle population towards a sector that desperately needs them, and produce an educated society that would be better capable of combating future dilemmas.

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn to avoid the risks.

Without understanding how coding works, people are subjected by the man behind the curtain.Stephen Hawking

academic artificial intelligence investigation


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