Reference to artificial intelligence (AI) has become strategic in higher-ed discourse, joining the terms “big data” and “predictive modeling.” When I was introduced to AI in 2013 by a member of our design team, it captivated my imagination. Since then, as our data grew to proportions that were ripe for AI, I’ve become enthralled by its potential to enrich the accuracy and personalization that leads to better outcomes. That does not make me an expert.
If anything, it could make me equal to all out there who have wondered what these terms actually mean, how they matter to education, and where to draw the line between hype and results.
Defining the terms
Artificial intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider “smart.”
Machine learning (ML) is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves (Bernard Marr, author, speaker).
Note: Neither definition implies the machine outsmarts or replaces its human team.
AI in healthcare
Like higher ed, healthcare systems are complex, tethered to random human behavior, constantly evolving, and looking to technology to help improve outcomes for all. I found the following healthcare example helpful for visualizing how AI makes it possible to take human expertise and replicate it at scale.
In a healthcare experiment, AI scientists worked with experts at diagnosing a certain type of lung cancer. Collectively, these teams converted expert knowledge into a set of rules and decision trees for reading a lung cancer X-ray and determining diagnosis. In the end, the machine “student” outperformed the very experts who designed its rules.
For some people this outcome seems obvious and acceptable. For others, the thought of relying on a machine diagnosis over a trusted doctor is not acceptable. The reason the machine outperforms the human, while following the same rules, is that the machine is free from bias, second-guessing, fatigue, or distraction. The AI machine becomes a critical member of the team—not a replacement.
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