The implications of AI in education and welfare

Re-Educating Rita, a part of the extensive special report on Artificial Intelligence by The Economist, debates some important consequences of AI for policymakers in education and welfare.

A relatively obvious consequence is the need for life-long learning, imposed by the rapid changes in technology. The standard way of providing higher education currently adopted by universities and colleges is based on condensing all you need to know in a four or five-year-long degree. What you get from those years is supposed to last for about half a century, until you die or retire. Getting education in this way has been compared to “drinking from a fire hose“.

Clearly, this approach is no longer valid, and schools should adapt their strategies to a world where knowledge acquired in college may become obsolete in a few years. Recent developments in MOOCs and other forms of flexible education are changing the landscape of higher education, and imposing radical changes in education policies.

As the Economist points out, “… as knowledge becomes obsolete more quickly, the most important thing will be learning to relearn, rather than learning how to do one thing very well.” Focusing on reasoning, learning skills and strong fundamentals, such as math and physics, is important, as will be the ability to come back to school to learn new technologies, approaches and theories.

Another issue tackled by the Economist, in this article, is the idea of a Universal Basic Income, discussed here in a previous post. First proposed during the industrial revolution by Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, among others, the idea that everyone should receive from the state a fixed amount that is enough to survive (and remain a consumer) has been increasing in popularity lately.

According to The Economist, “The idea enjoys broad support within the technology industry: Y Combinator, a startup incubator, is even funding a study of the idea in Oakland, California. … The idea seems to appeal to techie types in part because of its simplicity and elegance (replacing existing welfare and tax systems, which are like badly written programming code, with a single line) and in part because of its Utopianism. A more cynical view is that it could help stifle complaints about technology causing disruption and inequality, allowing geeks to go on inventing the future unhindered.

Converting existing welfare schemes (excluding health care) into a universal basic income would provide around $6,000 a year, per person, in America and $6,200 in Britain. A recent Freakonomics podcast also addresses the idea of Universal Basic Income and describes some pilot runs of the idea, which have obtained limited, but promising, data about its impact.

Image from the print edition of the Economist.


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