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Futurists are making some challenging and potentially anxiety inducing comments about the world of work that our children are going to inhabit. Some predictions estimate that within the next decade up to a half of white-collar work will be performed by some form of technology possessing artificial intelligence. The impact will be felt everywhere, including in the dignified professions of law and medicine. Indeed, the Japanese parliament have just passed a bill allowing AI technology to determine the results of medical scans thus replacing the human specialists who have until now carried out this most important medical function. We have already entered a brave new world!

A recent project in Japan is also worthy of attention and highlights the challenge for education that the rise of AI will bring. Professor Noriko Arai from the National Institute of Informatics in Japan, was given the task of producing an AI Robot called Todai Robot, that could pass the hardest University entrance exam in that country; the Tokyo University Entrance Exam. In particular, she wanted to see if AI could pick up the skills and expertise said to be acquired only by humans and only through education. Her findings are extremely interesting and have massive implications for education globally. In the end, the robot didn’t pass the Tokyo entrance exam but it did pass the vast majority of other university entrance exams in Japan. Even more worryingly, it also performed better than over 80% of the 500,000 Japanese young people who sat the Tokyo University Entrance Exam. Remember this is the brightest of the bright that we are talking about here. University entrance exams in Japan have multiple sections that include maths, Japanese, science and history. Todai Robot also performed in the top 1% for all mathematics sections of the test. Where it didn’t do so well though, was in the reading section of each test because even though it is able to make complex complications rapidly, what it can’t do is understand the meaning of what is going on. In the end, it was a relatively poor performance in the reading section of the Tokyo University Entrance Exam, which meant that Todai Robot failed that test.  What was frightening again though was that this unintelligent machine (as Arai puts it) was outperforming the majority of Japan’s next wave of elite white-collar workers. She wanted to investigate what was going on so she pitted the robot against Junior High School students across the country in a reading test. Todai Robot outperformed a third of the students on various questions. Arai’s provocation is that simply having access to information and knowledge via the internet is not going to be enough. Only those who are able to read this information critically are going to make themselves relevant in a world dominated by AI.

What implications does this have for us at St Peters? If we share the concerns of Noriko Arai, there is an even greater imperative for us to ensure that our students leave Saints not simply stuffed with facts, but with the ability to interpret the meaning of information. Although there is much good work that goes on here, in some ways we are fighting against an outdated system. Arguably, students can achieve a high ATAR in SACE without really needing to interpret the information given to them. The system is not encouraging teachers or students to focus on the stuff that matters right now! I applaud the initiative by the Headmaster to create a direct pathway for our Year 11 students into Engineering at Adelaide University thus allowing them in their final year to concentrate on deep learning without the pressure of the ATAR hanging over their heads. More such initiatives are needed.  As Arai says in her TED talk, in schools we need to focus on the fact that humans have the ability to discern meaning. She argues that this focus will ensure that the human race can co-exist with and utilise the power of AI technologies. Time is running out though and we need to be agitating for more rapid change to ensure that our children are ready for the brave new AI world that awaits them. Pro Deo et Patria

Mr Ben Hanisch
Deputy Headmaster/Head of Senior School