Artificial Intelligence: The Next Frontier

Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford talks about the displacement of newspapers, and why the elite academic institutions of today could see similar extinction. Stanford University’s Sebastian Thrun was the visionary behind Google’s autonomous and flying vehicles, who teamed with fellow Stanford computer scientist Peter Norvig in 2011, to offer the first free online course on artificial intelligence. Available to anyone with internet access, 10,000 people signed up on the first week, from 190 different countries. By August, 160,000 had signed to learn for free from A.I’s leading experts. Imagine Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos teaching Mars exploration, or Steve Wynn and Micky Arison together teaching the hospitality business.

Ten year old kids signed up. So did those over seventy.

The intro class on A.I. had been accessible to only 200 Stanford students a year, but the free online course achieved 23,000 members who successfully passed the final exam. Stanford awarded those who finished with a “statement of completion”, but reluctantly, since those 23,000 members were exempt from the average $40,000 in tuition that Stanford students pay.

Rise of the Robots talks about the rise of student debt, with the average student owing $30,000 after graduation. Since 1985, the price of higher education increased by 538 percent- while the consumer price index has only increased by 121 percent. Education has even surpassed healthcare in costs, which has rose by 282 percent since 1985. Only 60 percent of university students graduate, with everyone remaining on the hook to pay off student loans.

Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig faces a camera, scribbles on a notepad, and otherwise demos examples in short video segments. It was modeled after the Khan Academy, with 248 members achieving a perfect score- meaning during the ten week course assessment, not a single question was answered wrong. More interesting, none of the Stanford University students taking part had perfect scores- Stanford’s highest scoring student was surpassed by 400 anonymous members in the online course.

It’s a promise to MOOCs, or massive online open courses, than a knock on higher education. Since 2011, venture capital has backed companies like Udacity and Coursera, the former founded by Sebastian Thrun, the latter founded by fellow Stanford colleagues Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. EdX was founded by MIT and Harvard, who invested $60 million for their version of online educatation. Classes are cheap and work with Ivy Leagues. Coursera has partnered with Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan. Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times praised edX for its “revolutionary” offering.

Of course, MOOCs are still not golden tickets.

It’s been found that course completion rates vary between 2 to 14 percent, with the average being 4 percent. Only 50 percent of the people even open their first course, according to a University of Pennsylvania study done on Coursera. MOOCs are intended for underprivileged, poor individuals who don’t have access to higher education. But it was found that MOOCs were studied by the same audience as those on Stanford’s campus, motivated individuals who used online classes as a supplement.

It’s not a bad problem, however.

Academic Noam Chomsky expressed concern at automated test grading, as technology has phased out many graduate teaching assistants, and writing assignments are graded by artificial intelligence that “cannot read or write.” The director of MIT’s writing program is a proponent against machine grading of written essays, who many times “out witted” the grading machines by manufacturing nonsense essays that are illegible, but still scored high by the computer. Les Perelman’s trick was to structure sentences a certain way, with overly complex language. However, no one else has been able to cheat the system this way. To cheat the machine’s grading algorithms, means one must know how to write well first.

Rise of the Robots closes the chapter on higher education, by stating that A.I. will always advance based on one value: labor saving device. It’s been human actualization that gives labor to machines when possible, and now machines have caught up with Peter F. Drucker’s knowledge workers.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft Windows did not mature into an industry dominating force until Microsoft released version 3.0, at least five years after it was introduced. If higher education industry ultimately succumbs to the digital onslaught, the transformation will very likely be a dual-edged sword. College credential may well become less expensive, and accessible to more students, but at the same time, technology could devastate an industry that is itself a major nexus of employment for highly educated workers. -Rise of the Robots.

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