The UK’s involvement in the ‘Aukus’ security pact highlights an urgent need to teach Artificial Intelligence in schools, a leading expert has warned.
The historic Aukus (AUstrialia, UK and US) agreement is a new data-sharing alliance between the UK, US and Australia.
It’s been set up to counter the perceived threat posed by China.
One of the key elements of Aukus will see Australia building nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, leaning heavily on US tech. The defence partnership will also see the UK sharing its expertise on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
But Professor David Reid, an AI and Spatial Computing specialist from Liverpool Hope University, says alarm bells should be ringing loudly in Britain over the fact that AI is not currently taught in schools - an omission he describes as ‘absolutely crazy’.
In a plea to politicians and educators to change the curriculum, Professor Reid explained: “We’re entering an AI race.
“With Aukus, much of the attention is focused on Australia’s new submarines. But of much greater significance is the commitment to sharing of AI resources. And in the UK, we have a huge problem.
“The UK has pioneered and developed many of the AI systems the world currently uses today. The core principles of Deep Learning, for example, were invented by the British computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton.
“And yet despite all of this, we’re now throwing away our great computer heritage by not teaching AI in schools.
“A new AI curriculum might take a while to be implemented but it has got to be done. I’d urge politicians to wake-up and understand the significance because, in all honesty, it’s already almost too late to act due to the pace of development. “
Professor Reid, of Liverpool Hope University’s School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering, says one of the prime reasons Aukus was formed was a report compiled by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, published in the US in March this year, which warned how the US was not sufficiently prepared to defend or compete against China in the AI era.
Chair of that Commission is Dr Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, and in the report he compares the growing threat posed by China’s cyber advancement with Russia’s deployment of the Sputnik artificial satellite in 1957.
Professor Reid adds: “Sputnik scared the living daylights out of the US. They suddenly realised they were lagging behind Russia in the space race and redoubled efforts.
“President Eisenhower’s first response was to set up NASA. But the other thing he did was to plough millions of pounds into an educational programme (the National Defence Education Act or NDEA), as America realised it didn’t have the educational resources to compete at STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) subject level to produce the technological innovations required.
“Now Aukus should act as the UK’s own Sputnik moment. Eric Schmit is already calling for an NDEA 2 at secondary levels of education up to PhDs in the USA.
“We should be scrambling to teach AI in schools. The school curriculum is way, way out of date (it was devised in 2014); very little is taught when it comes to things like Augmented and Virtual Reality or IoT (Internet of Things) devices - and absolutely nothing about AI.
“To me, it’s absurd that we are relying on an antiquated curriculum at the same moment we’re entering into what could be an extremely productive Aukus alliance. As far as advanced technology and AI is concerned, the alliance will stall is we can’t provide enough talent to drive it forward”
Professor Reid recommends that the basics of AI could, and should, be taught to everyone in school from the ages of 10 years old and above - which is roughly in line with recommendations being made in the US.
He states: “It’s about giving children a fundamental grounding in how AI works at a young age. But at the moment we’re neither being inventive enough or grasping the significance of recent developments.
“Make no mistake, AI is going to have a profound impact on everything we do. And the people it’s going to impact the most are those currently aged under 18 years old. It’s hard to conceive of anything that’s more important than this right now.”
There’s every reason to be mindful of China’s cyber capabilities, says Professor Reid.
Like others, he says the Aukus pact potentially signifies the beginning of a new type of ‘cold war’.
And he reveals: “China has said it wants to have AI superiority by 2030. Nobody really knows precisely what that means but it has huge ramifications in terms of defence.
“China has ploughed billions of dollars into computer science education to get their students to understand the importance of AI, and it appears to be paying off in dividends.
“With AI superiority come a host of cyber security problems - the ability to crack codes easier, the ability to integrate systems, and the ability to make autonomous weapons much more effective. Those are the big things. AI will have an impact on absolutely everything we do.
“You also have advanced facial recognition systems developed by China, which pose a significant problem for our intelligence community.
“We’ve had recent drug discoveries that have been made purely because of an AI system. And, in effect, any research has the metaphorical rocket boosters put on it if there’s an AI system involved. An AI system can build a better jet engine, for example, or build a better weapons system.
“And without all of this in place, underpinned by education, the UK risks falling even further behind.”
Professor Reid also calls for a fundamental shift in attitudes towards education.
He says: “At the moment you’re either a ‘luvvie’ or a ‘nerd’ - ie, you’re in humanities or you’re a scientist. And that dichotomy needs to change. What we have to get across is just how creative computer science is. It’s the only subject, I think, where you can produce something that’s bordering on magic.
“And there’s a massive shortage of people doing STEM subjects overall. The skills gap between how many graduates we produce compared with how many we actually need appears to be growing wider by the year. It’s a national problem.
“In the next ten years, AI will provide jobs that simply don’t exist now, in the same way the Internet led to everything from web developers to social media influencers.
“The ability to adapt and to understand, fundamentally, what’s going on should be embedded in the school system. Everyone should be able to appreciate the new ethical dilemmas AI will bring; to understand things like computational bias, or how AI systems can fail, or who is to blame when they do fail, not just the select few.
“Even just getting to grips with the language of AI, how to interact with AI, and understanding AI potential in assisting in performing a myriad of different tasks, will be hugely beneficial for young children.”
** For more information about studying AI at Liverpool Hope University’s School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering: https://www.hope.ac.uk/mathematicsandcomputerscience/