Most of us have become accustomed to answering the telephone at home and hearing a computer generated voice ask us to wait for an important message or participate in an automated survey. With the advances in text-to-voice technology, I frequently wondered why these types of calls did not sound more like a real human being. Based on some recent activity, I no longer have that curiosity! I recently experienced a rather unusual phone solicitation while at home. The call went something like this:
Caller (friendly grandmotherly voice): “Is Jamey there?”
Jamey: “Yes, this is Jamey.”
Caller: “Jamey this is Alice, it is so good to hear your voice! Boy, you are harder to reach than my grandchildren at an amusement park. Jamey, I am calling tonight to ask for your help again. Last year, you and your wife Nicole were generous and donated $y to support the x organization. I am calling tonight to see if we can count on your support again this year?”
Jamey: “Alice, can I talk with my wife about this donation?
Caller: “Yes, absolutely – go ahead!
At this point in the call, I asked my wife if she wanted to make another donation to the x organization. I did not cover up the handset, so my voice was able to be heard by the caller. Less than five seconds into my conversation with my wife, Alice began to speak to me again:
Caller: “Jamey, we can send out the envelope today or take a credit card over the phone.”
At this point, I was confused and did not know why Alice would interrupt my conversation with my wife. I am not sure why, but I thought I would try to mix things up and ask Alice a funny question:
Jamey: “Alice, are you a robot?”
Caller: “Now Jamey, I am not a robot, I have pre-recorded all of these responses, and the computer is just helping me with this call.”
Wow, for the first time during the call, I realized I was not having a conversion with a person, but with a computer and felt completely surprised and somewhat uneasy. Based on the warm, caring and sincere voice I heard, I had pictured a woman in her 60s or 70s who was volunteering her time to make solicitation calls on behalf of a worthy nonprofit organization. I would’ve bet a million dollars that I was talking with someone’s grandmother, not a computer. Welcome to the world of artificial intelligence (AI)!
Building computers with human-like thinking capacity has been a dream of experts since the term “Artificial Intelligence” was coined in the mid-1950s. AI technology has begun to open up new opportunities in many areas, including health, education, energy and the environment. In October of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology published a report titled: Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.
This report surveys the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the related questions that are raised for society and public policy. The report also makes recommendations for specific further actions by federal agencies and other actors. One of the summary statements in the report makes a prediction about the future of AI with regards to reaching or exceeding human performance:
Experts forecast that rapid progress in the field of specialized artificial intelligence will continue. Although it is very unlikely that machines will exhibit broadly-applicable intelligence comparable to or exceed that of humans in the next 20 years, it is to be expected that machines will reach and exceed human performance on more and more tasks.
The future of AI is sure to be messy. For example, automated vehicles, such as self-driving cars have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year worldwide and increase mobility for the elderly and those with disabilities by reducing driver error and increasing personal mobility. Yet public safety will continue to be a priority as these technologies are tested and begin to mature.
These new AI systems will test our conventional regulations and economic traditions. Can you imagine being pulled over by a police officer for a speeding violation while reading a newspaper or watching a movie on your tablet seated in the back seat of your car? Would you get the ticket? Would you blame the car maker for the ticket? Would the car maker blame the AI software maker? Would your insurance rates go up because “you were speeding,” or got into an accident, even though you were not driving?
I cannot help but think about the future impact AI will have on the world of public education at all levels during the next 20 years. We need to recognize the use of AI in education has started and will continue to grow at a rapid pace. Some of the popular education applications that include AI technology include:
- Automated grading – These tools are becoming more common, essay grading software continues to mature and will only get better.
- Digital tutors – Given the rapid pace of technological advancements, low-cost tutoring systems for all students may be realistic in the near future.
- Feedback systems – Using adaptive learning programs and data to drive instructional decisions help to pinpoint learning gaps and identify customized instructional strategies.
- Personalized library systems – How students find and use information will continue radically change research strategies.
- Language & speech translation tools – For students who are learning English as a second language, real-time translation tools are a tremendous asset for students and teachers.
I am sure AI will continue to be leveraged as a tool to improve the life for all humans. However, as noted in the report, this will only happen if: “… industry, civil society, and government work together to develop the positive aspects of the technology, manage its risks and challenges …”
We can predict now with near certainty that nearly one million American jobs will be lost in the next 20 years as driverless vehicles are fully implemented. Truck drivers, taxi drivers and even school bus drivers will likely become as obsolete and elevator operators. I am not sure if we can accurately predict staffing cuts in K-12 classrooms because of AI technology, but we could see a reduction in para pros as schools begin to purchase digital teaching aids (robots) to support student learning. This seems scary to everyone, but as leaders in education, we need to be mindful of AI trends and begin to think about the implications for good teaching and learning.