Friday, January 26, 2024

My 3 takeaways from Agastya’s “Student, teacher, and AI” conference at Kuppam

Thanks to my friend Ajith Basu, I got an opportunity to participate in the “Student, teacher, and AI”, a national conference held at Agasty’s beautiful Kuppam campus. I was part of the facilitation team with Shriram Bharathan and Suhasini Seelin. The participants came from education departments in the central and several state government offices, schools, colleges, corporates, startups, and NGOs. The conference had 3 thrust areas: (1) demystifying AI, (2) the role of AI in future curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, and (3) AI's influence on social and emotional learning. Here are my 3 takeaways from my sketchy and selective notes.

Self-learning may be a myth: AI is going to enable self-learning by generating personalized insights. For example, AI can tell the teacher that specific four students are weak in – say “division by 7”. This perspective was championed by Anand Rangarajan of Google among others. Having experienced online self-learning and being a beneficiary of YouTube’s recommendation engine myself, I was drawn to this view. However, Prof Bindu Thirumalai of TISS was vocal in suggesting that self-learning is a myth. Learning is fundamentally a social phenomenon and peer group and mentoring play a crucial role. Having grown up in an educated family and having access to helping friends, could my understanding of self-learning be flawed? I am curious.

Empathy, not yet, but beware of biases today: We looked at a short fictional case where Preetha, a personal artificial assistant, acts as an empathic friend to an 8th-standard girl, Swati, who is struggling with math in the class. Experts felt that most of the technological elements needed for the dialogue are already present. However, the degree of empathy and warmth demonstrated in the story is still missing in the human-AI interaction.

We also explored biases exhibited by Swati and Preetha. While we were doing that Dr. Pradeep from Google fed the story to Bard and showed us how Bard can identify biases participants had not spotted yet. We also reflected upon our own biases we are carrying. During this exercise, most of us were using the term biases to mean prejudices and inclinations. Prof Arun Tangirala of IIT Madras championed a view that for something to be called a bias, we need to have a ground truth and evaluate whether there is a systematic error of judgment. While there were differences in the meaning of bias, there was a consensus that biases will be amplified in the AI world, and it demands greater awareness.

Will AI enable creative adaptive intelligence? Not clear. Ramji Raghavan of Agastya proposed that to live in a world where technology such as AI widens the complexity gap, we need creative adaptive intelligence. Will AI enable it? It is not obvious. Some participants felt that they were already turning to ChatGPT for every problem, and that meant they were becoming lazy. Prof C. K. Manjunath from SMVITM, Mangalore presented how an AI-enabled advertisement such as Titan Eye+ becomes interactive and fun and asked, “How can an average teacher match this creativity?” Ms Changra, the Education Minister from Dharamsala, felt that unless we are alert, technology overdependence may affect our mental well-being.

To me personally, the two high points of the conference had very limited AI in it. One was a play by kids from Ganganagar Government School in Bangalore directed by Suhasini, and the second one was a veena recital by Vidushi. Sujatha Thiagarajan. Both evoked strong emotions. Would an AI-enacted play or an AI-recital in the future have a similar effect? I don’t know.

image credit: Agastya International Foundation

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