How does AI fit with learning?

Barry Johnson assesses the role that L&D is likely to play as AI’s importance in workplaces grows

As conversations about artificial intelligence (AI) in learning and development grow in volume and scope, it’s worth clarifying some of the words used by the experts.

AI is an ecosystem: a biological community interacting with a complex network or interconnected system – ie you, me and a computer. In AI, that is having intelligent machines, with intelligent computer programs that do things that, when done by humans, require intelligence. So these are like the things you do to help people learn.

The key element is adaptive learning. This is where AI presents learning material according to the learners’ needs. Analytics predict where action can be taken to better support a person, and where personalisation will be most effective. Analytics is the discovery, interpretation and communication of meaningful patterns in data.

Organisations may apply analytics to business data to describe, predict and improve business performance. In this case, we’re talking about learning. Personalisation consists of tailoring a service or a product to accommodate specific individuals, helping them learn information and skills.

One of the real problems with AI is the use of words as you have just experienced.

People are at the centre of the AI system. People inform the technology of what they do or know. The recommendations they receive are based on what they know and can do already, and what they want to learn or do. The information given to them is specifically structured for them, so it is adaptive and personalised.

Learning is complex and only now in the 21st century are we getting near the roots of it. Algorithms – a process or set of rules to be followed in problem-solving operations (ie by a computer) – are hard to build.

How would you know if a person does or does not know something? So how will the designers tell a machine? The machine does what you do – it asks questions. It follows that AI is complex, and it is difficult to build a technology that adapts to what a person knows or can do, and wants to know or do, but it is being done, and it does work. Isn’t this what you have been doing to facilitate learning?

There was a time when people would walk from A to B. Now they can drive. That means they need a road, a car and the skill to drive the car. Perhaps you can’t build the road or a car but, given those resources, you can drive from A to B. Yes, we have done this learning stuff successfully before. Now the machine is more complex, but people are the same, and we have already learned much. AI is just another tool to do the job. “Give us the tools, and we can finish the job,” as Winston Churchill said.

But why do we need AI? Learning is crucial in the revolution that is about to engulf us. Each technological advance creates a new need for us to learn.

Barry Johnson is a non-executive director at Learning Partners