Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost a full year, says UNICEF, while UNESCO predicts over 100 million additional children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading as a result of the COVID-19 health crisis.

Besides the immediate concern of how to ensure a generational gap in education is avoided, the pandemic has sparked huge change and debate within education. Teachers and institutions clearly need help with the dramatic change in teaching styles, a wave of new content and technology demands, and the exponential growth in communications and digital interaction with students and parents. Students themselves increasingly had to find their own way of learning with a newfound freedom to learn in their own time and via platforms and mediums that best suited them.

Technology has been at the center of these changes and one technology, AI has emerged as a critical enabler and opportunity for education providers but also for students as the world shifts to a digital era.

AI education is a national priority

AI is fast becoming the driving force behind education transformation as it accelerates the transformation of education. According to the Deloitte Global Development of AI-Based Education Report, AI is bridging the gap from modern education to future careers in a post-COVID era. AI is bringing about a revolution in the traditional education system and enhancing education quality, efficiency, and equity, creating value for students, teachers, and regional education systems, the report notes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than China today. AI is a national-level priority with investment pouring into AI-based education and driving significant adoption of AI curriculums in schools. AI is now a prevalent component in China’s K12 primary to secondary school system–the world’s largest school system with over 200 million students. In addition to teaching about AI, teachers, the “informatization of schools and universities” and foreign language training are all making use of AI tools and technology.

Elsewhere in Asia, Singapore’s National AI strategy is focused on developing qualifications for a workforce and society to thrive in the digital future. AI SG is a national program to catalyze, synergize, and boost Singapore’s AI capabilities. It is a multi-body partnership driven by the National Research Foundation (NRF), with up to $150 million being invested over five years. The government is also pushing for students to learn a minimum of “three” languages – English, Chinese, and programming with an emphasis on AI. While Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have all initiated national AI strategies to place SE Asia among the leading regions for AI in education.

AI is a critical language for the digital era

The idea that AI is an emerging new language is closer to the truth than many might think. AI, in the exact same way the mouse, keyboard, and OS serve as our language of interaction with the PC, is the language we use to connect and engage with a new level of intelligence and the huge potential of the exploding data at our fingertips.

AI is a combination of mathematics, technology, and engineering technique that allows us to interact and leverage the full capabilities of this new intelligence. This ability to access and automate the processing of huge amounts of data will transform the abilities of our children, the capabilities of teachers, schools but at a broader level for all people from all backgrounds and roles.

As a result, AI has a profound and fundamental role in education as a whole. If standards in math, English, and in recent years programming are held as foundations for a country’s future ability and competitiveness, then AI is likely the core skill and “language” that could shape economies in the digital era.

AI is being taught to children today so they can leverage the power of data analytics and digital capabilities to solve problems, spark new ideas and innovation. SenseTime pioneered the first AI textbooks for schools which are giving children AI knowledge and capabilities at all levels from elementary to secondary schools. The thinking is just like a language–all children should have foundation-level AI skills to enable interaction in the modern digital age, while deeper and more specialist knowledge can be attained for those that wish to become data scientists and AI engineers.

AI is a game-changer for education

We are entering an era of AI-accelerated development. By putting AI at the core of education we will ensure AI can be applied to maximum impact on healthcare, city planning, arts, entertainment, construction, and much more. Can you imagine designing and constructing a new building in the future without machine learning, computer vision technologies, and AI to support it?

But this vision cannot be realized unless AI is fully harnessed in two ways. The first we are already seeing to some degree – AI-enabled teaching and management of education. From the basics of automating the marking of test and exam papers to providing student learning insights and tailor-making curriculum and learning objectives to improve engagement and learning effectiveness.

The second is the establishment of AI as a core skill for all. Future careers and jobs will depend on AI capabilities. AI should be second nature in the way using a computer or the Internet is today for people of all ages.

We see AI having a core role in both creating new models for education and for life-long knowledge development, while also providing the critical capability to future-proof people for a digital society and economy.

Lynn Dai is the General Manager of Education Product at SenseTime, a leading AI software company focused on creating a better AI-empowered future through innovation. The company’s technologies are widely adopted by customers and partners in many industry verticals including Smart Business, Smart City, Smart Life and Smart Auto.

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