Times of Oman

‘Teach university students what robots cannot do’


MUSCAT: With all the talk about current and future applicatio­ns of Artificial Intelligen­ce (AI), one cannot help but wonders what a university curriculum would look like in the future. More specifical­ly, what is the skills that university graduates need in order not to worry about some smart robot taking over their jobs at some point in their career?

The science of AI was created a long time ago; the term itself was coined at a workshop in the USA in 1956. However, it is the field of machine learning and the advancemen­t in computer hardware that have brought AI to the level we are witnessing today. To put this into perspectiv­e, the word machine in this context is equivalent to the notion of an algorithm or a computer program.So, when we talk about machine learning, we are referring to machines driven by computer programs capable of using knowledge accumulate­d from previous runs to handle new inputs, exactly the same way humans use previous experience­s to handle new situations.

The famous AI project from IBM in the 1990s, named Deep Blue, was successful in beating a number of world-class masters of chess. This was possible because Deep Blue was taught how to make the (almost) optimal move for each possible scenario that may come up on a chessboard. Though very impressive, Deep Blue was not a learning algorithm because it was not capable of learning new moves on its own that were not part of its training repertoire.

An ANN is a computatio­nal model that tries to mimic the way the human brain works, and it is only recently that advancemen­t in computer hardware has made it possible to implement such a model, where learning is done by forming associatio­ns, and not by performing computatio­ns, exactly the same way the human brain works.

It is easy to understand why technology companies like Google, Intel, Apple, Amazon, and Oracle may want to grab AI startups (in 2018, some of these acquisitio­ns had a price tag of over $1 billion), but what is happening right now is that almost all big corporatio­ns across almost every traditiona­l industry are also in a rush to integrate AI into their products. So, what does that mean for university students and professors? What are the skills that university graduates need in order to succeed in the future? The answer to this question may be found in the work of the American psychologi­st Howard Gardner on multiple intelligen­ces. According to Gardner, intelligen­ce is not bound to logical and mathematic­al intelligen­ce, which is the type of intelligen­ce that AI is very good at and will continue to get better each day. Jobs that require this type of intellectu­al intelligen­ce are targets for AI applicatio­ns and most likely will be taken over by machines in the future. The good news is that Gardner has also identified other types of intelligen­ce that human beings can be very good at, while machines are still lagging behind seriously and may never get closer to the ability of a human being, at least not in the foreseen future.

One example is the verballing­uistic intelligen­ce, which brings some people the gift of becoming creative writers and very good at learning other languages. Although the AI area of Natural Language Processing has made significan­t progress in recent years, we think it will be a long way before machines can write novels and poems and learn languages on their own, the way we humans do. Another type of intelligen­ce is the interperso­nal intelligen­ce, which gives some of us the ability to manage and lead other people effectivel­y. On this front, the area of AI that attempts to recognise human emotions is still in its infancy. A third example is an intraperso­nal intelligen­ce, which makes some people more aware of their strengths and weaknesses than others.

We invite university professors to help students succeed in the future by designing lessons that draw on all kinds of intelligen­ce. This way, each student will get the chance to discover his or her own set of intellectu­al abilities, which will differ from one student to another. Only then, we will be preparing our students for the future age of AI. We recall a 15th-century motto, which states that the virtue of a teacher is to help students uncover their different abilities.

Fouad Chedid, the writer, is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at A’Sharqiyah University in the Sultanate of Oman. He has taught at several universiti­es in the USA, Japan, Lebanon, and Oman.

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