Over 5,000 years ago, Sumerians, by putting local technologies to new use — clay into tablets, reed into styluses — replaced characters for pictorial signs. With the invention of writing and reading they changed the world — economies, societies and the human brain itself would be transformed forever.

Today, we are at the cusp of grasping the promise of humankind’s latest technological tools with great transformational potential. The development of new language learning models, OpenAI’s GPT and others, are the jet fuel propelling artificial intelligence (AI) forward. Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, goes so far as to describe AI as just one of two technologies that are truly revolutionary— the other being the graphic user interface, the visuals that allow people to interact with a computer.

Like the beginning of writing, the development of the steam engine and the invention of the computer, artificial intelligence will fundamentally change how we live and work.

Like all previous transformative technology, AI is raising a universe of possibilities but also unleashing threats, both real and imagined. And, as in all previous planetary technological change, promise and peril co-exist — and these threats and opportunities need to be studied and acted upon.

There is nothing inevitable or forgone in the unfolding of AI. We are still a long way from fully understanding the ways in which AI will reshape our society, economy and the world of work. We don’t yet know the extent to which AI will be a force for good or evil. Technological innovation creates new inequalities. Thus, we have work to do to ensure that AI reduces, rather than exacerbates, inequities in our society.

Because AI is changing every field from, nursing to computer science to the study of languages, we need to start addressing the opportunities, challenges and concerns of AI in education to best prepare students for the changing reality of these fields. 

Students now need to be offered the applied, practical tools to succeed in an increasingly AI-powered world.

In developing and bringing together new academic and research programs around AI, educators need to be guided by three considerations:

• How can we use a broadly inclusive education in applied AI — one available to all students who choose to participate — for creating equitable opportunity in our larger community?

• How can we teach the applications of AI to transferable skills in the labor market across disciplines? 

• How can we lead the creation of an evidence-based approach to the use of AI as a powerful teaching and learning tool that is robustly anchored in ethical considerations, now and moving forward?

With all this in mind, UMass Boston, where I serve as chancellor,will embed applied AI in academic study across campus. This is Boston’s working person’s university, with the most diverse student population in New England. Three out of five are first-generation college students. Half are from ethnic minorities. Nearly half of our freshmen are age 20 or older. It is an ideal setting to study AI’s emerging potentiality and risks, as well as implement solutions for student success.

Supporting the democratization of AI in education will offer the tools to every student who wants to graduate with a fluency in using AI-powered tools to improve their engagement in their chosen professional field of study: AI for Management, AI for Teacher Education; AI for Environmental Studies and so on.

AI is creating a tectonic shift in how work is done across all sectors. That creates exciting opportunities for those who know how to harness it — and threatens to leave behind those who don’t. As always, those threatened most are members of historically underserved groups, who make up most of the student body in my urban research university. We have a special obligation to support these communities as we wield, shape and lead on these new cutting-edge technologies if we hope to rival the Sumerians' impact on the planet.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the chancellor of UMass Boston and the UCLA Wasserman dean emeritus. UMass Boston — in partnership with tech entrepreneur Paul English, the founder of the travel site Kayak — is establishing a first-of-its kind artificial intelligence institute to address the ethics and application of AI use. Suárez-Orozco is also co-editor of “Education: A Global Compact for a Time of Crisis.”

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