AI and education

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On-going developments in AI (artificial intelligence) have resulted in much speculation and some concern. Fred Ryan’s recent article in the Journal provided a background for a more detailed discussion of AI and society. With the current school year coming to a close, there is a special interest for AI applications in education. To test the impact that AI may have, I presented two mathematical problems to the Bing AI application available on the Windows Edge browser. The problems were presented with the initial options provided by Bing – no attempt was made to refine or alter the system.

The first problem is representative of standard high school math problems: A rectangle has an area of 20 cm squared and a perimeter of 18 cm.

What are the dimensions of the rectangle?

The second problem requires a bit more mathematical prowess but should be solvable by students wanting to continue their education in science or engineering. The problem is: A rectangular room has integer dimensions. The area is equal to the perimeter. What are the dimensions of the room?

The results were interesting. Bing correctly presented the formulas for both problems. However, my first use of the system, in January, resulted in incorrect answers. But, a second attempt in June, resulted in correct answers – 4 and 5 for the first problem; 6 and 3 for the second problem. (4 and 4 is also a solution for the second problem, but some may consider this as a square and not as a rectangle.) In all cases, Bing displayed the details of its method to find solutions. And certainly, for the second attempt, a teacher would have difficulty determining if the solutions were developed by a student or by an AI application.

All indications point to a world where mathematics education is not a necessity. This raises the question: Why learn mathematics? There may be several possible answers. First, because it’s on the curriculum and passing the math exam is necessary for a high school diploma. The second reason is that mathematics is everywhere, thus a knowledge of the basics of mathematics is necessary in our society. A third reason is that mathematics trains the mind in logic and rational thought. The fourth reason may be that mathematics, along with music and poetry, takes the human mind to its highest cultural development. In reality, the reason is not limited to one option. There may be several very good reasons to learn mathematics at the high school level.

Of course, mathematics is not the only subject that is affected by AI. There is no limit on the application of AI to education. The question is: How will AI be integrated into the educational system as a complement and enhancement of humanity? The answer to this must go beyond teaching as an end-in-itself to a full and meaningful participation in society. But it all starts with education and human understanding. And yet, we dare not rush in where angels fear to tread! We must get this right if all of humanity is to survive and prosper.