In 2005, acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace delivered a graduation speech at Kenyon College, which he opened by describing a parable about three goldfish. The story goes like this: an old goldfish swims by two younger goldfish and greets them with ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?” After he swims past, one of the younger fish looks at the other, and asks, puzzled, ‘What is water?’
Students preparing to finish school today have spent their entire lives swimming in a sea of rapid technological change. To someone born in the twentieth century, the way the Netflix uses an algorithm to suggest a new movie to watch that perfectly aligns with your interests and viewing history is miraculous. To a teenager who has never stepped inside a video rental store, it’s business as usual.
As convenient as new technology can be, when it comes to preparing to enter a workforce where computers are starting to perform the sort of tasks previously performed by highly skilled humans, some of these same changes can start to look a bit more intimidating.
From the mechanical brain to AI
But how did we get here? One of the world’s earliest computers was an advanced calculator called the EDSAC, developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge. The computer could only add, subtract, and multiply, but it was considered a breakthrough because it could store its results, earning the title of ‘mechanical brain’ in reports from journalists. An article from a 1949 newspaper predicted that the ‘brain’ of a computer would one day be able to ‘help with our income-tax and book-keeping calculations’. But remembering was only the first of many quantum leaps computers have made over the past several decades – as we begin to build computers that are able to not just perform calculations but also use that information to analyse problems and make decisions, AI will help us work on more complex issues than our end-of-year taxes.
Artificial intelligence is already being widely used by some of the world’s biggest organisations, and often in ways we wouldn’t recognise. Amazon uses algorithms to predict your next purchase, your email account automatically suggests responses to messages and displays advertising based on your search history and the words you commonly use. At the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, artificial intelligence has detected cancer by recognising irregular cell growth in diagnostics labs, protected endangered species by predicting animal movements, and increased the mobility of people with motor impairment by powering brainwave-controlled wheelchairs. So while we often discuss AI’s role in shaping the future, the technology is already being used to solve some of the most challenging problems of today.
Computational thinking: how to work with machines
All around the world, students are learning to code. It is, after all, an important twenty-first century skill. Every website you visit, and every phone app you download has been written by someone trained in computer programming. But while coding is important, it won’t be long until computers will be able to code themselves. Young people today don’t just need to know how to use computers, they also must learn how computers work. This is computational thinking.
Computational thinking is, at its core, the philosophy of how to solve problems with machines. It’s the ability to break a task down into individual processes; facing a mammoth task head on and solving it through small, calculated steps. Machine learning has shown us how computers can outdo us at certain tasks, and we should embrace this as an opportunity rather than a threat. But computational thinking is also about recognising what computers don’t do well – and addressing the ethical challenges posed by autonomous machines.
To truly thrive as technology advances, we will need to recognise that computers can help us with some of the tougher, more process-driven tasks, while we can focus on our inherent strengths – the ability to dream, imagine and conceptualise issues.
An increasingly AI-driven future will give us new tools to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our society: from discovering new agricultural methods to combat global hunger, to developing new ways to address the imminent threat of climate change. AI will help us crunch data in a flash, but the technology will also allow us to build a better, more connected world.
In his speech, David Foster Wallace used the parable about the fish to illustrate to humanities graduates how they should never take for granted the culture that they found themselves living in, and that they should take every opportunity to be conscious citizens and use their education in fields like English, history and sociology to live a good life and do what they could to improve the lives of those around them. In thinking about the role that artificial intelligence and other technologies will come to play in our society, it is advice worth remembering.
Author: Leslie Loble
Leslie Loble is a Deputy Secretary at the NSW Department of Education.