WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all current episodes of HBO’s Westworld.
I recently attended the ASU+GSV Leadership Summit in San Diego, California, a conference about innovation in education in schools and the workplace and the role technology will play in the future. I left feeling inspired and excited about the implications for my job as an English teacher.
Then, just a few days later, the second season of Westworld premiered - and things looks pretty dire. Through human programming and guidance, robots have achieved consciousness and are seeking to dominate and destroy humanity. It’s our worst nightmare since the 1984 release of The Terminator come true.
It would make sense if this dampened my excitement about what I’d learned at the ASU+GSV Summit. However, thanks to that experience, I actually find this course of events increasingly unlikely. Here’s why.
In the first season of Westworld, prior to the hosts (robots) becoming sentient, Robert Ford, the park director and co-creator of the increasingly human-like hosts, says apologetically, “We've managed to slip evolution's leash now, haven't we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive, and, you know, one fine day perhaps we shall even resurrect the dead. Call forth Lazarus from his cave. Do you know what that means? It means that we're done. That this is as good as we're going to get.”
Implicit here are
1) this story takes place in the very distant future, and
2) when we do reach this point, humanity has nowhere to go but down. Our age is done; it’s time to move over and another creature reign on Earth. By the end of the first season, it’s clear that this has been Ford’s goal for some time, evidenced by the increased sophistications he’s coded for the hosts. His former partner, Arnold, convinced him posthumously that their creations are not merely machines with no feelings; they do not deserve this perpetual cycle of rape and murder but to have free will and determine their own destinies. In giving them this - and in starting with Dolores - Arnold and Ford, mere humans, have unleashed a rather vengeful and violent Eve 2.0 in the Garden of Eden they grew. In essence, they have become mortal gods, and from there, there can be no further transcendence.
At this point, things are looking pretty bleak. I found myself wondering, after the first two episodes, which characters I was supposed to sympathize with. Why should humans or robots win? The hosts, created in our image, are no better than we are and fall into the same traps of seeking power and domination through violence (this is the show’s inherent inevitable flaw, IMHO, but that’s a separate conversation).
Well, it’s a good thing Westworld is still science fiction. Science fiction offers us the best means of philosophically evaluating humanity’s potential in all things, but it doesn’t always get it right. The best science fiction offers us opportunities to understand ourselves better and prevent catastrophes like Westworld before they happen.
And now, the billion dollar question - what does this have to do with education?
One of the most interesting sessions at the Summit was “The Human Workforce in a Post A.I. Era,” a panel discussion moderated by Ellen Levy between Michal Avny, Co-Founder and CEO of Symbolab; Ulrik Christensen, Executive Chairman, Area9 Group; Steve Goodman, CEO, Restless Bandit; and Charles Thornburgh, Founder + CEO, Civitas Learning. The panelists have a collective background in leadership, human resources, software development, and innovating educational technology.
According to the panelists, the realistic outlook on AI is significantly less grim than what is presented by Westworld. In fact, it’s positive - but only if teachers at the secondary and higher education levels prepare our youth for a world in which AI is a prominent player in the workforce.
In the first season, a conversation between technicians Felix and Sylvester alludes to a personality test that, presumably, every individual takes quite young to determine their potential and thus the career they will have (somewhat like Gattaca), the results and implications of which are immutable.
We haven’t yet created such a simple system for matching people to the appropriate careers. We’ve all taken the quizzes for fun, but they serve as guides, not interminable contracts. In addition, this system does not reflect the increasing support for developing growth mindsets in the world of education. To concretely limit individuals’ career choices is to enforce a fixed mindset for everyone, and we can’t afford to think that way. Education’s ultimate purpose is to prepare students to survive and stay relevant in a world with rapidly evolving standards of talent. If we teach our students that there are limits to what they are capable of, futures like Westworld are inevitable. They must be prepared to be multiple steps ahead of technology in order to keep it working for us.
So how do we do that? According to the panelists, improved tech will actually lead to more and better opportunities uniquely suited to humans. Ulrik Christensen said, “tech decreases the amount of time it takes to get to authenticity,” his point being that AI will work for us and enable us to evolve, making us even more human. Charles Thornburgh added confidently that there is a limit to jobs that can be replaced by tech; it will mainly be those that are “low-risk, high-predictability,” or jobs that require little more than being able to hold large (but finite) amounts of knowledge and spit it out when necessary. This means that our students need skills that can’t be automated, at least in the near future, like critical thinking, evaluation, synthesis, adaptability, and quick decision-making for unique situations. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; if tech aids humanity as a species in satisfying needs on the lower levels, we can apply these skills directly to self-actualization, reaching greater potential than ever before - an exciting prospect. Possibilities that we can’t even conceive of yet are waiting for us. Consider the exponential growth and advancement triggered by the the printing press. The electronic calculator. The smartphone. What’s next?
Our kids will tell us. In cutting edge inner-city high schools, we’ve known for years that our students need to be equipped with 21st century skills; however, standardized assessment and institutions of higher education had not caught up with us, creating an unproductive philosophical dichotomy and two different worlds for which we must prepare students. Overall, the ASU+GSV Summit conference demonstrated that higher education is beginning to grasp this idea. Colleges and universities are moving away from a provider-centric (teacher-centered) model to a learner-centric (student-centered) one. Ulrik Christensen pointed out that some 160 high schools have already teamed up with colleges and universities to revamp the high school transcript as a portfolio of skills, not a list of letter grades, to more accurately reflect students’ capabilities. This may sound like a step closer to the test that Felix and Sylvester took, but it doesn’t have to be. Such an approach paves the way for secondary educators to focus on essential 21st century skills and move toward a more flexible project-based classroom, more adequately preparing students for reality and helping them figure out what they enjoy and what they’re good at, not just getting them jobs. All they have to do is prove themselves through practice, and new opportunities are always available.
There is a pervasive fear among some that humanity is rendering itself obsolete with the rapidity of change. That’s only true if we don’t change with the world we are creating for ourselves. Steve Goodman asserted that with AI, “I can tell you who to interview, but I can’t tell you who to hire...Singularity is not here yet...robots are not taking over the world.” Michal Avny alluded to two sides of the future - “the side that is shaping the future, building the robots, building the machine learning algorithms” and “the side that is working alongside them,” careful not to declare one side as more important than the other.
In the real future, not Westworld’s future, there’s a place for everybody, so let’s stay on good terms with our tech. We have yet to conceive of the things we can do if we just embrace it. Indulge in a little more science fiction so that we may live long and prosper. People in the Star Trek universe are doing it; we can, too.
Melissa is an English teacher leader at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies. To watch the panel discussion in its entirety and point out everything she’s taken out of context, click here.