14 min read

AI in Learning and Work: A Double-Edged Sword

co-workers looking at screen

The world of artificial intelligence, or AI, is fascinating, intimidating, provocative, and empowering all at once.

The AI revolution is disrupting all aspects of life in every sector of the economy—including education, government, and the workforce. And we have to weigh the pros and cons of this transformative technology carefully, because each successive development raises new ethical questions.

Some people are concerned that AI could well bring about the end of many traditional jobs. Others posit that it will ultimately pave the way for greater innovation and help create new jobs.

In this episode of the Horizons podcast, host Tameshia Bridges Mansfield shares excerpts of conversations from Horizons 2021 in which AI experts explore the impact this seemingly double-edged sword of a technology is having on education and employment.

In a panel discussion called “The Calm Before the Storm: The Transformational Impact of Al on Education,” Tod Loofbourrow, CEO of ViralGains and chair of the JFF Board of Directors, notes that AI applications are getting smarter by the day—and also becoming increasingly invisible as they are embedded more deeply into the tools and applications we use all the time. And while we might not always be aware of AI in our lives, panelist Cynthia Breazeal, founder and director of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab, emphasizes that we all need to understand the potential inequitable implications of AI for learners and workers.

A third panelist, Noelle Silver, CEO of the AI Leadership Institute, lauds AI as a tool that can help people learn by doing, a viable alternative for students and workers who prefer hands-on learning over traditional approaches to classroom instruction. Silver also points out that users no longer need to know how to code to successfully work with AI—a development that appeals to the inner entrepreneur in all of us.

Speaking of AI entrepreneurs, podcast listeners will also meet robot choreographer Catie Cuan, who recounts the events that led her to that unique career pathway in “How an Art Project Prepares You for Jobs That Don’t Exist.”

And while most people won’t end up dancing with robots, Cuan’s experience does offer evidence of AI’s ability to shape the future of work.

However, we must make sure we embrace “AI for good” in order to build a society in which everyone has opportunities for economic advancement, says Greg Toppo, another “Calm Before the Storm” panelist. A journalist and co-author of the book Running With Robots, Toppo stressed the need for schools to help the country’s future talent understand and pursue AI’s capacity to have a positive impact on the future of work and society at large.



Tameshia: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president for workforce innovation at Jobs for the Future, also known as JFF. And this is Horizons.

In this special podcast series, we’ll share the best and brightest highlights from JFF’s annual Horizons summit, a national gathering of influencers dedicated to reimagining the future of learning and work and leaving the past where it belongs, behind us. We’ll hear from a diverse range of experts, many with unconventional points of view, representing private industry, government, philanthropy, nonprofit, and educational institutions focused on aligning people, places, and systems to drive economic advancement for all.

The world of artificial intelligence, or AI, is fascinating, intimidating and empowering all at once. As AI and machine learning technologies continue to progress, new ethical concerns are arising that we’ll have to face head on as a society. The AI revolution is disrupting education, governments, and the workforce, and we still have a lot to discover when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of this transformation. Some have expressed concern that these technologies mark the end of many traditional job titles as we know them, while others postulate that AI will ultimately pave the way for the creation of new jobs and greater innovation in the future.

In this episode, we’ll hear clips from two different Horizons 2021 presentations about the exciting yet unpredictable world of AI, and how it will ultimately affect education, career, navigation and the workforce. The first Horizons 2021 segment we’ll explore is a panel discussion titled The Calm Before the Storm: The Transformational Impact of AI on Education, moderated by Tod Loofbourrow, CEO of ViralGains and chair of the JFF board. The panel discussed the double-edged sword that is AI. To kick off the discussion, Tod provided a helpful overview of AI.

Tod: [00:02:45] Let me start with a brief definition of artificial intelligence. Everybody’s heard of it but, you know, I like to demystify these things. So at root, artificial intelligence is a set of technologies, very diverse technologies, that excel in recognizing patterns and data. And they’re getting smarter and smarter in their ability to do that. They’re getting more and more self-directed in their ability to do that. And they’re getting to a place where they can start to teach themselves patterns.

So you see AI applications and things as diverse as facial recognition, you know, do I know who this person is? Or weather forecasting or predicting who is going to be a good medical risk for an insurance company?

Essentially, AI has become embedded and largely invisible in our society. If you go to Netflix and Netflix recommends to you what movie you might like, that’s actually an AI application doing that. If you go to a bank for a loan and the bank underwrites your loan, there’s probably an AI application in the background that’s helping make those decisions.

As you might imagine, a technology that’s pervasive and that endemic to our society has lots of implications, implications for the ethics of what you use it for and how those algorithms are built in the diversity and the knowledge of the people involved in building them. But it also has applications for jobs because artificial intelligence and robotics excelled at automating away things that are repetitive. And the things that are repetitive are getting larger and larger and larger. The things that AI can do are getting larger and larger and larger.

So AI is increasingly automating away jobs at the bottom of the middle class and not necessarily creating jobs at the top of the middle class at the same pace. For example, most of you have experienced or seen or heard of self-driving cars. They’re starting, you know, the Tesla can switch lanes and drive on the highway and a little bit in the cities. There’s a million truck drivers in the U.S. And whether it’s going to be five years or 15 or 20, when cars and trucks are automated and they’re driving, they’ll probably be a million fewer truck driving jobs. There are over three million cashiers in the U.S., pretty much all of us have checked out of a CVS or at Walgreens at one point. Those automated checkers aren’t very good right now. They’re overly complicated, they ask too many questions, but you know, you can see the evolution. As they get smarter, there will be fewer and fewer cashier jobs. These technologies are a double-edged sword. You can actually use AI technologies in the classroom. They can actually help with pedagogy; they can help with personalization of learning. So AI can not only be a sword that cuts away jobs, it can be a sword that helps in education.

Tameshia: [00:05:14] As Tod alluded to, AI technology is a double-edged sword that comes with a complex, multifaceted set of implications. Among them, the concerns about AI causing several jobs to go extinct and yet that it’s also a valuable tool that can help boost educational activities. However, as these tools and technologies develop, it will become increasingly essential to imbue them with an element of humanity to ensure they remain ethically sound. Dr. Cynthia Breazeal is a roboticist, entrepreneur and professor of media, arts and sciences at MIT. She’s also the founder and director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab. Cynthia joined the Horizons panel to discuss the future of AI, underscoring the importance of promoting AI literacy and designing these technologies in a way that champions equity rather than hindering it.

Cynthia: [00:06:17] So this has been my world for like, you know, 20 plus years. I’ve even commercialized technologies around this, but it became so apparent that as we design these AI systems that can help us learn, that can help nudge our behaviors to be healthier.

Well, it’s a double-edged sword. You know, we’re starting to appreciate more through social media that these systems can deeply shape us, shape society, our beliefs, our attitudes, all of these things, right? And it became so apparent to me as we started working with different demographics that people don’t understand this technology and they really, really need to.


So now this concept of AI literacy is no longer sufficient in society to be digitally literate. We really need to be AI literate. We need to be able to use these technologies more conscientiously. It’s in everything, you know, like kids are using this stuff, right? We need to be able to participate in the democratic process around the use of these technologies. We need to understand enough to be able to make those rational decisions around it. And we’ve been seeing many examples now of how these systems can exacerbate inequity and inequality in their design.

And so part of that is this is not a diverse or inclusive field right now. It really, I’m just telling you this, it is not. And we really need to change the face literally of who designs and creates and makes solutions with these technologies that are far more representative of the communities that they’re trying to serve through these solutions. So for all of those reasons, that’s why RAISE was established. And so again, it’s about responsible AI for social empowerment. So I think we fundamentally have to educate people differently. Right now, we educate people in silos, like computer science, like when you learn about AI, you typically don’t learn about it really until college or graduate school. And it’s typically in the computer science program. And the genie is out of the bottle.

AI is way bigger than computer science now, right? So we need to fundamentally change how we educate people in the use of AI broadly. But even the people who design it, I think, and we’re finding they want to learn the ethical design practices to think through societal implications. It can’t just be learn about how to make it and then let someone else worry about what the impact is. The more the people who create these technologies are aware and conversant and able to engage in reflection and critique and dialogue, participatory co-design, really engaging stakeholders in the design, so how we bring design thinking into it is really important.

I think that’s the way forward in terms of how we can educate and train people to be able to build products and services and solutions that hopefully will be more inclusive and more equitable. But a big part of that is also we need to train teachers to be able to teach it. So this is one of the big friction points to is, you know, it’s getting it out there in a way, not just to students and schools, but you know, teachers are not trained in computer science and AI and yet it is relevant to civics. It’s relevant to social science. It’s relevant, like we said, it’s relevant to all disciplines. So how we bring much more of our educational professional workforce I think, you know, into this is also going to be really important.

Tameshia: [00:09:37] Some may be wary of the impact of this latest technological revolution and the emergence of increasingly immersive AI tools. Others optimistically predict the merger of our human sensibilities with the latest technology to create a more equitable future for learning and work. In another segment from Horizons 2021, How an Art Project Prepares You for Jobs That Don’t Exist, Catie Cuan, a dancer, robot choreographer and a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, shared her touching story of dancing with robots. After witnessing her father become ill and increasingly alienated by the machines surrounding him, Catie decided to infuse two-dimensional technologies with her very human love of dance, movement and choreography.

Catie: [00:10:32] At the end of a long industrial hallway in the Brooklyn Navy Yard is the largest robot on the East Coast. These kinds of robots, they’re industrial robots. They’re used for manufacturing applications like assembling and welding. But as I walk into this enormous room at the Navy Yard, part laboratory, part studio, I am here to dance with this robot. I’m a choreographer and a professional dancer.

For the last five years, I’ve traveled all around the world dancing with many different kinds of robots. I became drawn to dance with robots for several reasons. My own frustrations with two-dimensional technologies, my interest in technologies that moved autonomously and my experience seeing my dad become very ill and feel alienated and confused by different machines when he was in the hospital.

I thought, how can we use technology and our esthetic interests to bring these two together in meaningful ways? These experiences using robots in art installations and performances was so impactful for me that I’m now a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at Stanford, where I work on interfaces that allow robots to learn new tasks from humans.

Tameshia: [00:11:53] Combining her unique interests, Catie carved out a one-of-a-kind career for herself. By merging her curiosity and willingness to explore her passions, she ultimately discovered the commonalities between dance and robotics.

Catie: [00:12:10] By creating my artwork output, I learned and refined a variety of new skills: robot programing, software design strategy, and project management.

If you didn’t know that I had learned these skills by creating a performance work, how else might I have learned them? In a boot camp? Workshop? Crash course? On the job? These new skills emerged from the necessity of the artwork itself that I wanted to make. It showed me how choreographers and roboticists may share more commonalities than I previously imagined. According to [Peter Blair Henry] of the National Bureau of Economic Research and James Manyika of McKinsey, skill distance is a metric that can help workers see connections between high-risk jobs and low-risk jobs that share similar skills. It essentially means, How similar are jobs within different categories?

While choreographer is a role that does not squarely sit in a high automation risk category, my experience using my existing skills and learning new ones in the course of this project is a demonstrable example of upskilling and investigating the true skill distance between choreography and robotics engineering.

For the last few years, I’ve called myself a robot choreographer. On some occasions I’ve been asked, Is that a real job? And increasingly, it is. Even robotics companies imply as much. The name of the software that you use to program the NAO Robot, a popular educational and research robot from SoftBank is called Choreograph. James Manyika of McKinsey notes that 2.7 billion individuals will soon be in jobs that don’t exist. And I’m one of them. I’m a robot choreographer, prepared for this job by the creation of an artwork.

We’re going to see fields that are concerned with body space and time like choreography, theater, bioengineering and animation. They will not just collaborate with roboticists, like many have for a very long time, but they’re going to conceive of an entirely new fields that probe exactly what a non-human body can emote, convey, and achieve. And we’re going to weigh the implications of those new bodies for people.

My journey of moving from choreography into robotics now seems like a very natural example of many new jobs and transitions between industries that will occur. Connecting the dots between the skills you have, the skills you learn for specific projects whether they’re artworks or otherwise and the jobs that don’t exist yet might seem ambiguous on the surface. But when you look beneath, you see that human potential curiosity, creativity and capacity for change are what drive those lines between the dots. And the options for interweaving those lines? Very limitless.

Take it from me. I’m a robot choreographer.

Tameshia: [00:15:22] As Catie’s story illustrates, AI is relevant to many different sectors and roles within the workforce. It also has the power to influence the ways we learn and collaborate with one another across training and education, regardless of level and skill. During the first segment we discussed, Cynthia also shared some of the insights she’s gleaned from working with students and teachers to expose them to emerging AI technologies. By connecting to their environments and lived experiences that will impact their future in the workplace and beyond, AI can also help sharpen students critical thinking skills.

Cynthia: [00:16:05] What we’re finding is that because AI is influencing and impacting everything, it’s important to meet students where they are and what they care about, social media, right? They love music, digital arts, and expression. So the hook that you can design to introduce how these algorithms work, how they’re being used in real applications, what the ethical or societal implications are of those applications, like we literally teach middle schoolers about generative adversarial networks [GAN] which is this new kind of more recent AI algorithm in which AI gets creative.

So when you see these photorealistic faces of people who don’t exist or videos of Barack Obama saying things that he never said, those are this new kind of algorithm, it’s generative adversarial networks. And so deepfakes, right, and the spread of misinformation is an issue where, you know, AI can potentially be like putting gasoline on that fire, right? So we teach kids about GANs both from the lens of creativity and artists and digital art, the music generation.

And we also present it for this other lens of deepfakes. And we’re finding that regardless of where these kids are, rural schools, you know, urban, you know, Title I whatever. Engaging them in that dialogue, they care passionately about that conversation. And we just see jaws drop of both the teachers and the students when you introduce them to these things. So they’re like, I had no idea. Or like, well, it’s on Facebook, and you can actually make it right now. You know, so it’s so eye-opening from a digital citizenship standpoint. And they know it matters. They know it’s shaping their future in profound ways. And I think that’s how you reach your audience to get them to care. You just have to meet them where they are.

Tameshia: [00:17:51] Noelle Silver is an award winning technologist and the chief executive officer of the AI Leadership Institute. She was on the panel about the transformational impact of AI on education. She spoke about how her passion for technology provides her with the tools to educate everyone from students to CEOs. Noelle also expressed how new technologies like AI have become so accessible and learnable that we’re beginning to unlock new opportunities for professionals and students alike.

Noelle: [00:18:28] And then on the other side, the world has adopted voice technology. And it is a classic form of artificial intelligence, so bring in an Alexa. Build a skill. Today, you can build a skill with zero code, get it up into production and give it to the world. Do that.

And I think the most important thing is don’t just do it, learn by doing. Right? Do it as a journalist, almost. Right? Document your story. Share your story.

This is how people learn, at least how I learn today. I don’t learn in the traditional academic sense. I don’t have time for that. I don’t think the younger generations have time for that. Like, they’re like, Give me a GitHub repo or give me a tutorial. I don’t know how many times I went to Barnes and Noble, olden days and picked books off the shelf and did all the labs. Right?

That’s the world I think we can approach with the younger generations. Like, give them hackathons. You know, let them play.

Tameshia: [00:19:20] Noelle’s passion for learning extends from student pathways to the workplace. She says employers should encourage and support their employees to show how innovative technology like AI or virtual reality can foster solutions inside the organization or in the marketplace.

Noelle: [00:19:40] I went from doing the work with my fingertips on a keyboard to designing the work, for example, for an AI solution or for an engineering solution. So I think part of it, though, was that the leadership of the organizations I was in allowed me to do that.

And I think this is part of a systemic challenge that we have is that there’s not a whole lot of allowance in middle management to allow people to transition. I mean, that was literally the glass ceiling I hit, it wasn’t executive glass ceiling. It was literally a middle manager who was like, I’m not really sure AI is for you. You haven’t really shown any like past experience. You didn’t do good in school. I’m not sure AI is for you.

And I was like, it doesn’t matter. Nobody, it’s not for anybody. Like nobody knows what Alexa is. So I went around him and did it anyway. But what if I didn’t have that self-confidence to be like, I hear you, I’m doing it anyway, which most of us don’t. Most of us have this imposter syndrome that we don’t even feel like, especially as a woman, especially as a brown person in tech. I’m like, I barely think I belong anyway. And then I have somebody tell me, it’s probably not for you, right?

But that’s a systemic—he didn’t do it because he didn’t like me. He actually liked me a lot. He thought I was a high performer. He did it because he actually felt like you don’t have the stamp that we all want from a university. Right? If you’re classically trained in a boot camp or, goodness forbid, at Barnes and Noble by reading books, I’m not sure you could do any of that. And I am proof that of course you can.

But what are we doing systemically to change that response in the professional workspace? It’s less about the tech. The tech is there. The education is there. Right? How do we change the emotional intelligence of the layers of management that allow people to become more than they are today?

Tameshia: [00:21:32] There’s no doubt that the emergence of AI is certainly impacting our society in a variety of significant ways. At the end of the day, we can all choose to view the growing world of AI as an exciting opportunity for innovation and positive change while recognizing its limitations and areas of concern.

Today’s Horizons segments have left us with plenty to think about. Here are three key takeaways to remember from this episode. First, AI has the potential to provide significant improvements to the education system and in many ways is already fulfilling this function. Empowering today and tomorrow’s learners and workers to understand the powerful impacts AI can have on our society is a major key to ensuring it’s used ethically and effectively in the future. Second, just as it has the power to elevate our society, AI also has the ability to perpetuate inequality if it gets into the wrong hands.

It is essential that we leverage the power of AI wisely to promote equality and justice rather than allowing it to act as a destructive force.

And finally, AI is providing our society with a unique opportunity to learn, discover and upskill by feeding our unique curiosities. Despite the very real fear that’s still prevalent when it comes to new technologies, we can choose to push past our apprehension and instead embrace the new world that’s emerging before our eyes.

Thanks for listening to the Horizons podcast brought to you by JFF. Together, we’re building a future that works and inspiring others to fight for equality, diversity, and inclusivity everywhere. Make sure to subscribe, rate and review the podcast. And tune in to our next monthly episode.

To learn more about Horizons or watch the full sessions featured in today’s episode, visit us online at JFF.org/Horizons. I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield from Jobs for the Future. See you next time.


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