Today’s Most Pressing Questions in AI Are Human-Centered

Shana Lynch:

Not everyone has access to classes at Stanford, UC Berkeley, or MIT. How do we broaden access to AI education?

I got involved in online education for just this reason: In 2010 Sebastian Thrun and I taught the intro AI class to Stanford students, and when in 2011 we were asked to teach it again, we thought that we should step up and try to reach a worldwide audience who couldn’t attend Stanford. In one sense this worked great, in that 100,000 students signed up and 16,000 completed the course. But in another sense the approach was still limited to a select group of highly self-motivated learners. The next challenge is to reach people who lack self-confidence, who don’t see themselves as capable of learning new things and being successful, who think of the tech world as being for others, not them. To do this takes more than just having great content in a course; we also need to foster a sense of community through peer-to-peer and mentor-to-learner relationships.

Today we see more programs teaching kids from kindergarten to grade 12 to code. Should we? Is this the right approach for grade school?

Learning to code is a useful skill. When I was in middle school, we didn’t have coding, but I was required to learn touch typing. That was also a useful skill. But learning to type well does not change the way you see the world, and by itself neither does learning the syntax of a programming language. The important part is what you do when you’re coding: moving past small rote-learning exercises to substantial multi-part projects; learning how to choose your own projects; learning to model some aspects of the world, make hypotheses, and test them; committing errors and correcting them without getting discouraged; working on a team; creating something useful that others will use, giving you pride of accomplishment. If you can do all that with coding, great. If you can do it with a no-code or low-code approach to technology, also great. If you can do it by sending kids out into nature to explore and do experiments on their own, equally great.