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What should we teach students about the future of technology?

Educators must train students to think critically about the technology they will one day help create

Will we ever become technology?

It sounds like a science fiction statement, but it’s actually not too far from reality. Humans rely on programmable devices for every aspect of their daily lives. These devices have transformed from stationary, to carried and worn, to physically implantable. There is no end to this progression; innovations keep evolving. With the ongoing focus of technology in education, and the need for schools to keep up with the ever-changing scope of its use in the classroom, it is essential that we provide students with the knowledge of how technology affects, and  will affect, society.

In looking at the future and how we interact with programmable devices, students need to understand both the positives and negatives  surrounding the use of robotics and artificial intelligence to simplify human tasks. They need to face the importance of ethics and cyber security to protect their information and secure their identities.

As educators, are we adequately addressing these areas in our curricula? Somewhat. We teach online safety, privacy and copyright issues, and we offer coding and engineering courses. But middle and high school curricula need to take the ideas of “safety” and “privacy” in these experiences a step further.

The concepts surrounding robotics, artificial intelligence, and cyber security are not just for engineering students on the college level. Every student needs to be informed about their rapidly changing surroundings and the ramifications that accompany technological advancements. It is essential that students act safely online and respect the property of others, but how do we teach them to think ethically about technologies that might not even exist yet? How do they protect themselves, their environment, their privacy, and society as a whole?

Casting a critical eye

Cloning animals is already happening, and genetically altered crops are a fact of life. But recent news has highlighted several concerning developments in technology around the editing of the human genome. Geneticist Jennifer Doudna co-invented a technology for editing genes, called CRISPR-Cas9. While the breakthrough could help treat genetic diseases it could also be used to generically engineer future generations with desirable traits, such as a high IQ, outstanding athletic ability, and 20-20 vision. In this Ted Talk, Doudna discusses this process and asks whether we should pause and visit the ethics of her research.

As I begin teaching my newly-created Technology & Society course this semester, I am thrilled to have so many resources available on this subject. Information about robots and artificial intelligence permeate our lives, and cautionary tales on the threat of hackers are everywhere. This October, President Obama issued a report on “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” where he highlighted the following recommendation for education.

“Schools and universities should include ethics, and related topics in security, privacy, and safety, as an integral part of curricula on AI, machine learning, computer science, and data science.”

In many schools, technology courses are electives. Robotics is taught, perhaps, as an after school activity, and artificial intelligence, already difficult to define, is barely discussed. Yet these topics already influence our daily lives and require our utmost attention.

A robot uses programming logic to perform tasks such as cleaning rooms and lifting heavy objects, and is presently found working in the manufacturing, military, and medical fields. Its purpose is to assist humans in daily routines and complete mundane or difficult tasks. On the other hand AI concerns computer programs capable of learning new functions. Over time, an AI machine can become more human-like as it develops the ability to reason through trial and error programming.

In essence, we are creating robots that can adapt to change in their environment and settings. Robots are evolving into more anthropomorphous creatures that have greater capacities for storing data.

As discussed in a recent Mashable article, tech behemoths Facebook, IBM, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have formed a new partnership around AI with the goal of addressing “opportunities and challenges with AI technologies to benefit people and society.” In an internal memo to employees regarding the formation of the tech team, IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty further clarified his hope that, “together, we will develop principles on collaboration between people and AI systems, and work to advance the trustworthiness and reliability of the technology.”

In another example, a Stanford project, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, created a plan to produce a detailed report on the impact of AI on society every five years for the next century. Suffice it to say there is a lot of data and research being performed. With that in mind, how should we address these topics to begin a paradigm shift in technology education?

From my experience, I believe there are a few obvious starting points for educators:

  1. Perform timely reviews to revise existing technology curricula to meet future learning goals.
  2. Create required courses that focus on these issues, aligned to state/national standards to provide students with an awareness of how technological advancements are affecting society (for better or worse).
  3. Invite guest speakers from different fields of technology into the classroom to give students a real-world experience.
  4. Offer project-based learning activities in the classroom to engage students in a collaborative real-world environment to share ethical views with a more global audience.

By allowing students to research, collaborate, discuss areas of concern, think critically and use creativity, they can begin to look at the pros and cons in an objective way. They gain the ability to generate preventive steps and find possible solutions when dealing with technology advancement. Preparing students to view ethics surrounding technology decisions with a global view in mind is crucial when observing how technology and ethical decisions are handled throughout the world.

Whether or not we ever become technology or not, we must continue to approach it with respect to human nature — understanding the benefits, identifying the concerns, and recognizing the value of being autonomous in a world where man and machine continuously interact.

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