Thayer Global Speaker Series: AI is a tool to be harnessed, say experts

Thayer Global Speaker Series: AI is a tool to be harnessed, say experts

Artificial intelligence is so powerful that, by decade’s end, teachers will become obsolete. 

That’s quite a powerful statement, but it comes with an equally powerful disclaimer: Dr. Chris Dede, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), first read that bold prediction in a scholarly journal published in 1970 — the same year the Beatles broke up. 

Card, Dede, and Dawoud

Watch the full conversation

“I’ve lived through nine hype cycles,” Dede, an AI expert and a visiting scholar at Thayer this year, told audience members Feb. 8 during “AI in Education: Preparing Students To Engage Effectively in a World of Advancing AI,” an installment of the Thayer Global Speaker Series. Explaining further, Dede said that AI advances enough every five years or so to create a “hype cycle” where the technology is seen as either saving civilization or destroying it. 

“The extremes have never been right,” said Dede, who for 22 years was the HGSE’s Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies. Among other roles, Dede currently serves as co-principal investigator and associate director for research at the National AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education (AI-ALOE), an institute funded by the National Science Foundation. 

Dede and Dr. Peter Dawoud, currently principal manager in product management at Microsoft, were the two guest speakers for the evening event, which was held in the Forum at the Middle School. Rachel Card P ‘27, ‘29, a member of the Thayer Academy Board of Trustees who currently leads the tech firm CxC Dev, served as the night’s moderator. 

A large audience in the middle school forum for the AI in Education event

The event drew a large audience to the Forum                 

Both Dede and Dawoud acknowledged that recent advancements in generative AI — artificial intelligence which can create new content — and its pairing with large language models (LLMs) — ChatGPT, for instance, with its access to the World Wide Web — are significant. However, they both downplayed the thought of a world run by machines and not humans. 

“Terminator is so far away,” said Dawoud, referring to the 1984 sci-fi classic in which humans battle Skynet, a futuristic and menacing form of artificial intelligence. “It’s the social media in your pocket that concerns me.” 

Dawoud also pointed out that AI, in the form of machine learning, has been the lifeblood of many products for the last 20 years, from biometric scans on a smartphone to search engines to digital voice assistants. He defined AI as “a tool that helps you make a projection or a prediction” but said humans, with their ethics and morality, are still quite in charge. 

“Any tool is helpful if used correctly,” said Dawoud, “and any tool can be deadly if used incorrectly.” 

Dede cautioned against “The Eliza Effect” — attributing human intelligence and emotions to machines — when it came to generative AI based on these large language models. 

“We’re wired to think that if something is producing language, it’s producing intelligence,” said Dede, adding that AI is producing nothing of the sort. 

Card, who spent seven years at Microsoft and worked on many of their highest-priority consumer products, including the ubiquitous video game console system Xbox, raised the issue of unintended consequences. She said it’s important for companies to not only understand new technology but also, as good stewards, to understand how that technology might be used by society. 

Dede urged educators to place more emphasis on human judgment and less on what he called “reckoning,” the computational skills which are quickly being replaced by AI. “The important problems in the world are the ones we don’t know the answers to,” he said. 

Dede offered positive AI examples where human wisdom was still front and center: an AI assistant scanning thousands upon thousands of medical journals instantaneously for a cancer researcher; a virtual Paris where animated chatbots interact with students to help them learn French; or a simulated emergency room where doctors and nurses roleplay decision-making as part of on-the-job training. 

Dede called this type of collaboration between humans and artificial intelligence “Intelligence Augmentation,” or IA. He compared the concept to the characters of Lt. Commander Data and Captain Jean-Luc Picard from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, he said, contains practically unlimited information at his disposal, but it’s Picard’s experience, compassion, and wisdom that ultimately makes the partnership work. 

In the end, agreed both Dede and Dawoud, AI is neither a blessing nor a bogeyman but a tool, and what matters most is not the challenge presented by AI but how society responds to that challenge. Dede then referenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and the character of Frodo Baggins; in the novel, the wizard Gandalf tells Baggins that he has no say in the challenges that life throws at him, only whether or not he’ll respond to them as a hero.   

A lively question and answer session followed
the discussion

“It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness,” said Dede. 

Card, who facilitated lively and insightful discussion throughout the 90-minute event, offered her own cause for optimism when she pointed out the people who will be most affected by advances in artificial intelligence were already paying close attention. 

“I love the demographics of this audience,” said Card, noting the large number of Middle School and Upper School students in attendance that night. 

Artificial Intelligence and its role in the future of education has been a focus at Thayer Academy this academic year. 


Thayer Global Speaker Series

The Thayer Global Speaker Series brings thought leaders, innovators, and difference-makers to the Thayer campus to engage the community in issues that matter to the world. 

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