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| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments

Outer space?

No thanks! On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, LEGO asked Harris Insights & Analytics, a market research firm responsible for the Harris Poll and located in Rochester, New York, to conduct an interesting survey. Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong and his compatriots changed the course of history when they walked on the lunar surface. Their triumph inspired millions of children around the world, who said they ‘wanted to be astronauts when they grew up’. Now, despite teachers’ efforts to interest children in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, the Harris Poll, which surveyed 3 000 children in July 2019 in the US, the UK and China, found that the thrill of outer space has waned. Three in 10 children in the UK and the US would rather pursue careers that would bring them fame and fortune, specifically through vlogging or YouTubing (both involve making and marketing online videos). Surprisingly, their second choice would be teaching. A smaller percentage opted for professional athletics or creating music in a professional capacity. In China, 56% of children surveyed wanted to become a ‘Taikonaut’ (a Chinese astronaut). These children were also quite sure that human civilisation would eventually blossom throughout the galaxy and that going into space would be fun.

What does the future hold in store?

In early August this year, children from across New South Wales (NSW), Australia, were given the chance to ask scientists about technology in the future. NSW students were flown to Sydney to participate in Google’s Game Changer Challenge launch. This was a threeday design thinking initiative comprised of teams that competed to find the best answer to the question: ‘How might we humanise technology?’ A panel discussion involving the schoolchildren set the tone. They were allowed to ask experts questions on the topic. NSW Department of Education secretary, Mark Scott, moderated the questions and answers, and in the hot seats were Melanie Silva, managing director, Google Australia and New Zealand; University of Technology Sydney (UTS) professors Toby Walsh and Mary-Anne Williams; ethicist Matt Beard; entrepreneur Jillian Kilby; and Microsoft national technology officer, Lee Hickin. The students were particularly interested in artificial intelligence (AI). Panellists were quick to reassure a student from Lake Munmorah High School that while rapid advances were being made in the field, no-one should worry about ‘Hollywood-style’ portrayals. Williams said that it was more pertinent to be concerned about the ethics surrounding AI. ‘AI is general purpose technology just like electricity, and it can be used for a wide variety of applications by a very wide variety of people. Ethics encapsulate our values, but it will be the laws that constrain and enforce AI,’ Williams said. Pursuing the issue of ethics, Beard fielded a question posed by a student from Elizabeth Macarthur High School. She asked if it would be ethical to programme robots to suffer in a physical, emotional or existential sense, and feel empathy. Beard said that in his opinion, suffering was a natural universal condition. But, added Beard, ‘What is wrong is inflicting suffering on someone, or being careless about the fact that someone else is suffering’. Describing the advances medical science is making in developing robots to care for lonely or infirm people, Beard pointed to another ethical conundrum: ‘You might want a care partner to experience some kind of empathy and empathetic suffering. If there is someone who has just lost a loved one and the robot is unable to experience that suffering alongside them, that might lead that person to feel even more lonely than they already did,’ he said. Melanie Silva, Google’s CEO Down Under, was interviewed by students from Plumpton High School after the discussion. She said that the most important skill students needed for the future was curiosity. Urging young people to ask ‘why?’ instead of accepting givens, Silva said that future humans must not let the opportunity for deep investigation to take place. ‘My dream for… kids when they are at school is to think about problems and how they can solve them and be resilient enough to keep trying, even if you don’t solve it the first time,’ she said.

Category: Spring 2019

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