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Why Teach Kids About AI?

Kids properly understanding the world around them will lead to the global greater good.

Katherine Lissitsa
6 May 2019

Canadian non-profit Kids Code Jeunesse (KCJ) has recently pledged to teach over 1,000,000 kids and 50,000 educators about artificial intelligence by the year 2030. The initiative was launched to ensure that kids grow up aware and informed about the AI technology around them — from the Google Home on their kitchen table to the GPS in their parents’ car, and from their future inboxes to their social media accounts.

"When we look around their world today, it’s pretty much surrounded by artificial intelligence," says Kate Arthur, CEO and founder of Kids Code Jeunesse. "And to stay true to our mission, which is to make sure that children are educated to communicate and create with the tools around them, they need to understand how AI works, what it is, and how it’s affecting their environments so that they can work with artificial intelligence moving forward."

Making sure that children learn the fundamentals of artificial intelligence is one thing, but the date set by KCJ also coincides with the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development, an initiative that started when world leaders got together in 2015 and decided which objectives needed to be met by 2030 in order to end poverty, fight inequality, stop climate change and more.

In support of the UN, Kids Code Jeunesse therefore decided to merge the two goals into one and create #kids2030. Arthur says fusing the two is a great opportunity to not only help Canada achieve the goals, but also to provide children with hands-on projects using technology to help achieve them. And the skills they acquire during that process could come in handy when looking at issues facing their given community.

"Through what we do and what we teach, we also want kids to feel empathy," adds Lucie Luneau, who manages KCJ’s AI educational program. "It’s about having better technical abilities, but it’s also about giving yourself a sense of purpose and recognizing what’s urgent right now, what you can do, and how you can implicate yourself in your community."

Getting kids to make a positive impact with the use of artificial intelligence will be achieved through three steps set out by KCJ’s AI strategy:

  • Teacher training sessions that will equip Canadian educators with the skills and confidence they need to transmit what they learn about AI to their students. Introducing the concepts behind artificial intelligence to teachers will also help accelerate the implementation of AI into Canadian school curriculums — a move KCJ considers necessary given that today’s children represent the very first generation to grow up in an AI-infused environment. These children will therefore need to learn about AI in order to make conscious and informed decisions as they interact with it.
  • In-classroom workshops with students which will unfold through three types of activities: unplugged activities to start things off in an engaging way off the computer, hands-on exercises focused on computer vision and/or text recognition where kids get to build a project using the AI capability of Scratch, and finally, a discussion around the ethics of artificial intelligence. The workshops will strengthen their natural intelligence and will begin to prepare them for the changing job market ahead.
  • The development of educational resources about artificial intelligence that address issues concerning AI ethics and digital citizenship. These resources, which include a curriculum, are created, developed, tested, and vetted by leading experts in research, industry and education.

Kids Code Jeunesse has recently piloted an in-classroom workshop and a teacher training session in Montreal, with plans to introduce AI to teachers in Toronto and Vancouver before launching the project nationally in September 2019.

The pilots are showing great promise already. Luneau mentored at the teacher training in Montreal and says that educators were happy to explore AI. “It’s really something that they are eager to learn,” she says. “Because it’s the same with the general population — everyone has heard about AI, but isn’t sure what it is.”

Arthur observed the same enthusiasm — not to mention the laughs — from kids when she took part in the in-classroom pilot. She recalls the teacher using Siri in front of her students and asking the virtual assistant to tell a joke. Students were then prompted to figure out who was the one to tell it. Some thought Siri was a person, while others said the teacher was behind it, but overall, it resulted in a great discussion around how Siri functions and what role does artificial intelligence play in that.

Arthur maintains that teaching children about AI will improve their critical thinking skills and their ability to comprehend probability and statistics. Not to mention that understanding how artificial intelligence systems function will dispel the notion that AI is pure magic.

Another aspect of AI that kids will likely take away from learning about it is the concept of understanding through examples, explains Hugo Larochelle, an accomplished computer scientist, AI practitioner, and the lead of Montreal’s Google AI Group.

“At school, we would often start grasping a concept if the professor gave an example of it,” he says. “I think opening up to them that machines are able to do a form of that as well is important, because they then start to realize the relationship between the two.”
“That means that if they hear later on in their lives that there’s a particular set of technology that’s based on machine learning, then I think that makes them aware of ‘Ok, that means there was some data that was collected somewhere,’ and the relationship between the two then becomes clearer,” adds Larochelle.

Being aware of the causal relationship between data and the behaviour it triggers in a given machine is also at the core of AI ethics, he says. “It all boils down to understanding that there’s a relationship between what the machine will do and the data we give it.”

Larochelle says that any conversation about technology, and especially about artificial intelligence, should include a discussion about its potential pitfalls. And these pitfalls stem from what the people behind the technologies do, not the technology itself. He explains that any technological tool is neutral at the core, and that it’s practitioners and users who ultimately determine the outcome. “Technologies are as good as we make them to be,” adds Larochelle.

What he also wants kids — and everyone for that matter — to understand is that AI is not a blanket technology that can solve a million things at once. “People tend to think that the same AI is solving a bunch of different things,” says Larochelle. “Whereas all of our systems can really only do one thing right now. And they’re relatively simple compared to our own intelligence.”

Larochelle wishes that people would quit thinking of AI as an almighty robot with endless capabilities — a technological feat he believes we are quite far from achieving. “There’s still a long way to go for us to actually even come close to the full spectrum of intelligence that we have,” he adds.

“Ultimately, where we bring AI and what we do with it is really up to us as a society.”