Why K-12 Education is Key to American Leadership in AI

This week the Trump administration released an executive order on American leadership in artificial intelligence (AI). The order outlined education and funding priorities necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive in AI, one of the most rapidly advancing technologies in history. Recently Iridescent CEO and founder, Tara Chklovski, shared her initial thoughts about the plan with Education Week. While it’s great to see the administration prioritizing AI research and workforce retraining, she noted it’s missing two crucial pieces: K-12 AI education and ethical development of AI.

“The key to U.S. competitiveness in AI may be locked inside the minds of the children and teenagers who will grow up in a world increasingly defined by automation technologies,” Chklovski explained. “Without a concerted effort to teach AI principles to children, the U.S. risks putting students at a disadvantage once they enter the global workforce.”

A family works together to create their own “self-driving car game” as part of the AI Family Challenge.

K-12 AI education must go beyond technical information in textbooks

Highlighting countries making substantial investments in AI education like China, she pointed out hands-on, project-based curriculum as an opportunity for the U.S. to create richer learning environments. Teaching soft skills alongside technical ones helps prepare learners for a career path where the impact of emerging technologies on the future of work is less known.

“Countries like China, with students frequently outperforming American students in science and math, are investing a lot of money in AI education. The U.S. has an opportunity to excel by building skills that go beyond textbooks. One way is connecting technical skill building with opportunities to solve real-world problems. Through our AI Family Challenge program we’ve found that challenging children and adults to learn about technologies like AI and then having them apply those skills to solve  real-world problems helps them build job skills like curiosity, creativity, and collaboration.”

A family works together to complete a project as part of the AI Family Challenge.

The ethical development of AI needs the same level of care and attention as privacy concerns

In addition to K-12 AI education, the plan doesn’t address the issue of ethics. Trust and safety considerations like data privacy are important. But issues of bias, fairness and algorithmic transparency are also crucial to ensure AI technologies are representative of the populations they serve.

“There is an alarming lack of diversity among the people who are currently building the algorithms transforming industries,” said Chklovski. “If the issue is not addressed on a national scale, the gap between the people who can access and provide input on building the future of AI and those who cannot could lead to long-term bias against the latter and greater economic disparity in the country.”

Adults and children must feel empowered to learn about new technologies and have the opportunity to use them in meaningful ways. The new executive order puts attention on an important conversation. But, it is only the beginning of what needs to be a much larger, ongoing partnership between government, industry and academia.