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Next-gen education will have to be about AI adaptation

When I was in school, we weren’t allowed to use electronic aids during our exams. Even then I didn’t understand why we had to do sums in our heads when it was so much easier to use an electronic calculator. But when I had the guts to question my teachers, I got a lecture on how the ability to multiply numbers in my head would serve me well when I was older.

Today, with perfect hindsight vision, I can say that not only have I rarely used that skill, but I end up using the calculator app on my phone all the time, even for the simplest of sums. And I’m no worse for it.

I’m happy to say that there are schools today that are a lot less anachronistic. Not only can my son bring a calculator into his exam room, he is actively encouraged to use it. I think mental multiplication is no longer considered the important life skill it once was. I was also pleased to see that they’ve made a similar easing to another bane of my schoolboy life, spelling, encouraging examiners to ignore spelling mistakes unless they interfere with understanding.

Today, calculators and spell checkers routinely do for us what we couldn’t do otherwise when we were little. And since they’re built right into the technology that surrounds us, they’re reliably available when we need them. If the goal of our education system is to equip our children with the skills they need to succeed in life, we need to look at what they need to survive in the world they grow up in, rather than giving them skills that may have been useful as their teachers grew up.

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I was also pleased to see my son actively encouraged to think beyond his textbooks. When we were in school, we were tested on our ability to regurgitate answers we had memorized. The focus of modern educational programs seems to have shifted from this to assessing students on their ability to sift through information and find arguments that best support their statements. They must develop different writing skills, which do not depend on their ability to memorize, but instead force them to think about how to present answers in a way that makes their case the most persuasive. From personal experience I can definitely confirm that these skills will take you further in life than the ability to calculate sums in your head. It will help equip students not just for a life in academia, but for all types of knowledge work.

As useful as these skills are, are they what our children need to survive in the world they are growing up in?

In the recent past, we have seen a huge improvement in large language models (LLMs). Just a few years ago, these systems were little more than glorified autocomplete algorithms that used pattern recognition to approximate human conversations. Now that they’ve stuffed themselves with the content of much of the navigable internet, it seems there isn’t much these applications can’t do. A few weeks ago I used one of these programs to co-write one of my articles in this column. Most readers couldn’t see until the big reveal in the penultimate paragraph that it was written almost entirely by a computer.

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There are several applications for which these technologies are used, including, most relevant to our current discussion, research. Today, an LLM can be charged with conducting research on virtually any topic worth studying, and it will generate an accurate summary of the most relevant papers in a form indistinguishable from what a human being would have produced. If this is the direction the research is taking, is there really any point in educating our children the old-fashioned way? If it is inevitable that machines will replace human researchers, wouldn’t we better teach our children to use AI as a research tool?

But I believe there is another, very different issue predicted by these developments that deserves our attention. One that if we fail to raise awareness among young students, our failure will leave them ill-prepared for their future.

Unlike in the past, where we could take for granted that all academic literature we come across is peer-reviewed and therefore reliably accurate, given the ease with which LLMs generate articles from scratch, there is a growing concern that even the most apparently authentic primary source material could be completely fabricated. We’ve all seen how fake news has impacted journalism and eroded trust in the media as a whole. I can see how academic research could suffer the same fate if LLM-generated content begins to proliferate to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish real research from made-up research.

This is the future our children are growing up in, and if there’s one thing we need to teach them, it’s the art of figuring out if the stuff they’re relying on is real or created out of nowhere. To do this, we need to instill in them a sense of healthy skepticism so that they question any information they are given, no matter how reliable the source may seem. We must train them to refer to sources and only accept facts that have been sufficiently confirmed.

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Our current system of peer review should take care of all of this, but if we can no longer rely on that tried and tested system, we will have to learn how to take care of ourselves.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast called Ex Machina. His Twitter account is @matthan

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