Innovative applications of AI in education and youth

25 May 2018 02:00h

Event report

This session addressed the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and especially, the SDG 4, ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. The session was moderated by Mr Fengchun Miao (Chief of Unit for ICT in Education, UNESCO). He argued that AI can remove economic, cultural and language barriers. However, we often talk about ’responsible AI’ in the developed world, forgetting that in order to address the ethics of AI, we should focus on the equality in accessing these tools. He recalled the strategy pushed by UNESCO by investing in youth literacy and improving access to education. However, today more than 260 million children and youth are out of school. More than 600 million people have not reached the minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics. More than 20% of the primary schools in the Sub-Saharan region do not have access to electricity. He recalled that the main barriers to access to education are connected to poverty, conflicts, natural disaster and gender discrimination. In developing countries in particular, literacy rates are low even among graduate students from schools. Thus, before opening the floor to the panellists, he asked the guiding question of the discussion: How can we use and facilitate the use of AI to manage and optimise education? Furthermore, he stressed the problem of ethics in AI: many people think about the negative aspects of AI and this hampers the applications for education purposes. In response to these trends and challenges, UNESCO is taking action by developing norms and building capacity – such as guidelines – for developing countries.

The session then moved to the keynote speech, addressed by Ms Jayathma Wickramanayake (UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth)​​, who talked about growing up in the AI era. She structured her speech around the topics of education, gender, equality and meaningful participation and governance. The world has the largest generation of young people it has ever seen. Furthermore, three-quarters of this youth lives in developing areas, and owing to technological developments and tools, can benefit from a competitive advantage to understand and respond to complex dynamics of the world we live in. However, access to digital technology is limited in developing and least developing countries. Thus, the impact of AI on education should be looked at in relative terms due to the inequality in accessing these tools. She also stressed the need for the education system to adapt to the technological developments to leave no one behind and to ensure continuing education. Human beings, ethics and values have to be at the centre of the discussion about AI. She then introduced the concept of ‘digital citizenship’ meant to improve transparency, protection and overall equality across all genders, ages, and regions. She also stressed the need for engaging young people in the discussion about AI because they are, ‘essential actors in finding a solution to the issues faced by the world today’. Young women are the most discriminated against in the access to technology. Gender equality in the digital age can promote greater partnerships in the international community. She concluded her speech with the following main remarks: the importance of making technology accountable to the system of human rights; the need to strengthen the access to education without discrimination; and finally, the need for all AI related programming to take into consideration the needs of the youth.

The next speaker was Mr Jeon Gue Park (Principal Researcher and Project Leader, Electronics and Telecommunication Research Institute (ETRI)), who demonstrated two applications meant to provide English language services. The idea was pushed by a joint effort of the Korean Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science in ICT. The Korean government wants equality in education opportunities nationwide; but the situation is difficult, due to a lack of human resources. With this regard, AI can be a realistic alternative to English or foreign language teaching. Thus, it is necessary to combine AI and the educational context.

Ms Bosen Liu (Founder, Ladder Education Group) talked about the role and aim of her team to bring the most up to date technology to serve the educational needs of the most isolated populations in the world. The goal is to provide opportunities to step out of isolation into the global labour market. The focus of her team is on English literacy and sustainable development, and their target audience are discriminated girls and women. She then explained the tools developed, mainly featuring solar-panel hardware and offline software. Finally, she concluded her remarks by stressing that in the matter of applying technology in education, technology is never and should never be the core. Education is.

Mr Jonnie Penn (Google Technology Policy Fellow, Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge) shared some insightful data on the world we live in, and stressed that there is a poverty of imagination in the way we talk about data. Indeed, we refer to data as we would to oil, coal or gold, which are resources that have been exploited. However, he pushed the audience to think about data as infrastructure. Meant as something that is invisible and that connects us; and all of us can benefit from it, including industry. He suggested that we think about data, not in terms of ownership, but in terms of access and control. He then moved to the possible applications of AI: it can be used to identify patterns of inequality. Finally, he concluded his speech by advocating for the following developments: incorporating citizenship education into young people’s syllabuses; pushing for digital literacy; and to teaching technology through the lens of history.

The next speakers were Ms Elena Sinel and Ms Sara Conejo Cervantes (Artificial Intelligence Task Force, Teens in AI)​, who talked about their experience in involving youth in developing solutions to the challenges faced by our society. They stressed that the future is not going to be based on how much knowledge one has, but how they apply it to real life situations. It is necessary to teach young people how to use this knowledge and apply it to real life.

The final speaker was Mr Matt Keller (Senior Director Civil Society, XPRIZE Foundation). In introducing the structure and work of the foundation, he raised the question of the possibility to use the power of the crowd to solve problems. Can answers come from the most unlikely places? He explained the guiding lines of their project How to use technology for good in order to reach young people who cannot access these tools. They are working with the United Nations World Food programme, UNESCO, the government of Tanzania, and Google, to test and prove the supposition that children on their own can teach themselves how to read, write and do basic math. He then launched a video that explained step by step the pattern for the tools used and the challenges faced, mainly regarding the need for personalised education.