School of Curiosity

Artificial Intelligence and Education in the 21st Century

Ben Fathi
6 min readApr 9, 2024
Stolen shamelessly from The New York Times

“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” — H. G. Wells.

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” — Ken Robinson. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics. March, 1949.

Excerpt from an imaginary school brochure, published some time in the next decade…

At our school, we have no curriculum but curiosity, no outcome but joy and awe. We’ve stopped stuffing students’ heads with archaic formulas and historical dates. We no longer lull them to sleep with boring lectures nor do we scare them out of their wits with pop quizzes!

Instead, we use the emancipated neurons, and the liberated hours, for soaring artistic endeavors, for group frolics in the fields, for hearty debates, for collaborative projects, for strategic thinking, for ecstatic learning.

We believe the entire universe is our classroom, every blade of grass and every blinking star a topic worthy of pursuit, a story waiting to be told, a cross-disciplinary lesson waiting to be learned.

It’s time we free future generations from the yoke of rigid educational systems and antiquated pedagogical disciplines. It’s not too late to come to our senses and abolish the outdated system of education we force upon our children, lecturing them into numb submission day after day, year after year, so we can spew them out the other end, saddled with crushing student debt and festooned with esoteric degrees, but with no life experience whatsoever and with an education already obsolete before the ink on the certificate has even had a chance to dry. And then we wonder why they fail to thrive.

The children of this next generation are different, unique in the history of mankind. They’ll be able to ask any question that pops into their heads and immediately have a detailed and cogent answer presented to them. Not only that but they can dig as deep as they want on any part of the explanation, going down any and all rabbit holes, guided by a teacher (or parent) and a friendly chatbot tutor always ready and willing to help. These answers won’t be curated by anyone but rather conjured up by AI in real-time.

We stand at a “hinge in history”, a beautiful term coined by philosopher Derek Parfit to describe pivotal moments in world history when our existence has taken a sharp left turn. Fire. Language. Agriculture. The printing press. The internal combustion engine. Electricity. The semiconductor. The internet. And, now, whether we’re ready for it or not, Artificial Intelligence.

We can argue till we’re blue in the face about what constitutes consciousness, whether “it” passes the Turing test, its silly “hallucinations”, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), nefarious types using AI to wreak havoc on world infrastructure, etc. But make no mistake. AI is here and it’s here to stay.

There’s just one thing I don’t understand about all the doom and gloom scenarios currently in vogue. We’re all busy wringing our hands about when “it” may become sentient, hijack the electricity grid, take over all the factories and our vehicles, steal all the money from our bank accounts, ground all our planes and disrupt global shipping, manufacture weapons of mass destruction and deploy them, enslave us all and plug us into the Matrix, blah blah blah… and, meanwhile, apparently, all eight billion of us are standing around with our thumbs up our asses not sure how to pull the plug because it’ll happen so quickly that we’ll have no time to respond. Really? How so? Please explain.

We have no trouble spending hours navel gazing about the worst possible scenarios instead of envisioning and bringing about more positive outcomes. How predictably human of us. How about we use this amazingly powerful tool to improve our lives instead.

AI is no more or less revolutionary than the internet was. Look at how the internet has changed all our lives over such a short amount of time and you will get an inkling of why nVidia and Microsoft stock are suddenly skyrocketing like startup stocks of the dot com era.

Whichever side of the argument you’re on, whether you’re afraid of AI or enthralled by it, there’s no denying that it’s an amazingly powerful tool and will assist us in many ways, transforming human society as we know it. We can wring our hands about how it will overtake us, we can be scared of it, or we can create a symbiotic relationship with it that will enrich both our tomorrows. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to stand back and reevaluate all of our social norms and systems, education hopefully being one of the first.

If we were to start from scratch today, knowing everything we know, is the current education system the one we would design? I don’t think anyone would answer that question in the affirmative. The current model is the bastard child of attempts in the eighteenth century by the Prussian empire to train obedient soldiers for its army and by the British empire to train factory workers for the industrial revolution. Not exactly what we need as we start editing our own genes and colonizing other planets.

Fast forward five years and think about what a ChatGPT-like Large Language Model (LLM) could do to revolutionize our education system. We’re not thinking big enough when we ban AI from our classrooms, choosing instead to rely on arcane methodologies and outdated paradigms.

The creation and deployment of advanced LLMs will be prohibitively expensive for the next few years and limited to a few big players. Meanwhile, simpler LLMs with less demanding computational and memory requirements will quickly become prevalent and useful in dozens of industries.

Yes, of course, such a tool can (and will) be used for nefarious purposes, just as the internet has been. Take a look at the dark web, ransomware and DDoS attacks, identity thefts, rampant porn and gambling, and toxic social media if you want proof points. But, shockingly, twenty-odd years later, most of us manage to use the web for positive and productive purposes and the world hasn’t ended.

AI will be the same. It’s just a tool and will get used for both good and bad. Get over it and let’s get to work building a world we can all be proud of with our artificial friends. We finally have the tools at our disposal to do so.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for teachers and school administrators. They’re not the problem but rather part of the solution. It’s just that they’re handcuffed with the current rules of the game and allowed only small incremental changes to the status quo. We’re not going to get to where we need to go at the current rate of progress.

Every once in a while, a teacher or a school breaks the mold and really challenges students. We write a book about it, maybe even make a movie, pat each other on the back, and go back to our daily lives, never questioning why this sort of performance should be the outlier rather than the norm, why every student in every school shouldn’t be allowed to drink freely from the firehose of information and why every teacher and parent in every country shouldn’t have access to an intelligent, knowledgeable, and (let’s make sure we get this part right) compassionate “tutor”. AI, in the right hands and with the right intentions, can and will revolutionize human society. Let’s work together to materialize that reality.

The volume of information (we think) we have to stuff into kids’ heads has grown exponentially and in every subject you can imagine. Instead of admitting that and trying to move up the abstraction ladder, we insist on burdening students with minutiae and arcana, forcing them to memorize irrelevant details instead of teaching them how to think and giving them the tools they need to do so.

What if we use AI to help them ask and get answers to every question their minds can conjure up, building lesson plans as a conversation between the child, the educator, and the chatbot, one in which the trio explores disparate lines of inquiry in pursuit of the truth? How does grass grow? Why is the periodic table arranged the way it is? Why is the sky blue, anyway?

Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts (except for Medium) and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post with others if you liked it. Thank you.



Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.