AI education in the 21st century

COVID-19 and a lack of funding are expanding the digital divide

January 7, 2021

6 Min Read

COVID-19 and a lack of funding are expanding the digital divide

The digital divide is a concept that has been around since the mainstream adoption of the internet. Internet access was and still is to this day uneven and unequally distributed across the United States.

And yet, all high school curriculums are based on the assumption that the student has access to reliable broadband.

Students without access to reliable broadband are at a distinct disadvantage to their connected counterparts.

Higher education has traditionally been an equal playing field when it comes to access to technology and the internet. WI-FI is free and available to all students, regardless of what they’re studying or their backgrounds. Nevertheless, there is a technology access issue plaguing higher education. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a key technology for the future of our society, but developing AI requires the use of computer labs, GPU farms and costly cloud computing. The combination of a lack of funding and a pandemic has meant that students do not have access to or have lost access to the technology required to study this field.

Hundreds of colleges and universities across the country find themselves underfunded and in danger of further budget cuts as outlined in the Hechinger Report analysis. Many found themselves under financial strain before the pandemic began and are in a worse position now. Declining enrollment and a lack of support from government bodies have left education providers without the necessary capital to purchase new equipment, upgrade their technology and prepare students for the ever-evolving and advancing workplace.

Some areas of study are affected by a lack of funding more than others. English majors, for example, require for the most part just their textbooks and laptops. A student might study the works of a writer who lived more than 100 years ago, the words in a 100-year-old book do not change. Compare this to a student studying AI, they require their textbooks, access to a computer lab with high power computers, and up to date hardware and software.

The speed at which technology becomes outdated is unparalleled. We would not teach medical students to use leeches to remove ‘bad blood’ from patients and we should not send AI students out into the world having used outdated technology.

If we are to secure a future where secure, private and ethical AI has a meaningful and, more importantly, positive impact on our lives, we must ensure that today’s AI students, who will be tomorrow’s AI developers, thought-leaders and educators, are adequately and properly supported.

Students left behind by an automated workforce

It is universally accepted that the workforce and the workplace are becoming more and more automated. This has been accelerated by COVID-19, we rely on technology to do our jobs more than ever before.

Technology is a major part of our everyday life, AI, in particular, is beginning to play a large role in society. The days of manual labour and menial jobs are numbered. AI has already begun to be used in lower-skilled jobs, chatbots and manufacturing robots are common examples of AI fulfilling jobs once performed by humans. Jobs that we once imagined could not be carried out by anything other than a human with a degree and an internship under their belt will be filled by an algorithm.

As is often said, when one door closes another opens. Although the automation of the workforce means some jobs will no longer exist for graduates, new positions and opportunities around technology will be created. Understanding AI and knowing how to use it to solve problems, save time and save money will be a vital and sought after skill. Every industry will want to use the technology available to become as productive and profitable as possible and with this comes opportunities.

As a student studies their chosen field they will identify the areas that need innovation and updating. If this student also has an understanding and knowledge of AI, they will be able to explore how AI could be used to free up employees time to focus on other areas. Having an understanding of the use cases, the possibilities and limitations of AI mean that students will not become ineffectual but can use AI to advance their careers and open new doors.

Expecting all students to be able to code and create their own AI models is unrealistic and unnecessary. Giving students the knowledge and experience of working with AI models is giving them an extra tool in their tool belt. This skill means that as their chosen field continues to advance and develop with the technology they will not be left behind. 

Breaking down the barrier to entry

As with all subjects, the sooner students become familiar with the topic the better. Ideally, students would become comfortable working on computers from K-12. Computer science, artificial intelligence and algorithms can conjure thoughts of mad scientists locked away in high-tech labs and can be off-putting for the majority of people. Introducing students to these terms and the technology early reveals that computer science is not something that should be feared but rather something that they can use to work for them.

As students progress to higher education, it is vital that the facilities are available so that they can continue to keep their skills sharp. As I said, not every student needs to graduate with a degree in computer science but students wishing to keep up with the pace of the automated workforce should have every chance to do so.

The simplest and most effective way to ensure students have the best technical education needed is funding. With the required funding higher education providers around the country can equip students and labs with the right equipment and guidance. This is also the least likely possibility. We are in the middle of a global pandemic that has caused the loss of thousands of jobs and cost the country billions.  

An overhaul of technical education is not on the table.

Another option is for colleges and universities to partner with enterprises. Private companies can provide equipment outside of computer labs and training to students. Students gain the necessary skills in vital areas and enterprises know that students will be leaving education with the right skills to stay relevant, drive innovation and use technology to benefit themselves and their employers.

The barrier to entry for AI development is higher than almost any other form of computer science. If we don’t make these changes, if this funding doesn’t come and AI curriculums are not modernised for students, we risk a future where the industry is either under-resourced or becomes one for the few, not the many. It will become an industry only for those who sit on the “right” side of the digital divide. We’ve all seen the dystopian futures in fiction when AI becomes a tool for only the global elite. Let’s ensure that doesn’t come true.

As sci-fi writer William Gibson said, “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. It will benefit not only the students but society as a whole if we make sure the future is evenly distributed.

Albert Liu is CEO of Kneron, a company specializing in chips for AI inference at the edge

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