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The fourth industrial revolution has shown up first and most prominently in the high-tech fields. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones leading us to use emerging technologies to enhance productivity, efficiency and reliability. The impact of the revolution is going to reach much further, harnessing the immense and awesome powers of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and innovation to solve challenges that have escaped our reach over the decades and centuries.

In higher education those challenges include personalizing learning -- that is, how we can tailor learning to each student’s needs without boring them with redundant learning that they have already mastered or moving too rapidly for full comprehension and retention. A further challenge has been how to keep our teaching and learning relevant to the world today and tomorrow, rather than the past. How can we ensure that learning matches the workplace and marketplace as they emerge? Increasingly, we are challenged with the spiraling costs -- in terms of government subsidies and tuition revenue -- of degree programs. How can we advance learning at a lower cost so it is affordable and accessible to more learners?

It is artificial intelligence that will facilitate and power the changes needed to address these challenges. At the core of the problem is the organization of the learning process, as Hosni Zaouali writes:

While it’s still too early to evaluate the extent of the change in the quality and scope of instruction that AI might achieve, what is certain is that it will cause a revolution. That is because educational systems around the world remain rooted in the foundations established in the 1800s. Most of all, AI will crush the idea that all students must learn in the same place, in the same way, and at the same speed.

Kai-fu Lee, an AI expert, has described the current education system as an “educational assembly line,” in which children advance from class to class without paying too much attention to differences in terms of learning, personal preferences, and abilities. The role of AI will be to trigger a veritable revolution of the very idea of what constitutes education.

A recent Educause quick poll shows that while a small minority of institutions have artificial intelligence on their radar for recruitment, tutoring and chat-bot engagement, the vast majority have yet to implement any serious pilot programs or to even begin planning to harness the power of AI beyond chat bots and rudimentary adaptive learning programs.

As the business world is deeply engaged in AI, now is the time for higher ed to do the same. Those who begin to reconceptualize their systems and processes early will create efficiencies and competitive advantages in attracting students and accomplish enhanced learning outcomes that are attuned to the societal needs of the future. Eliot Markowitz writes that institutions should now double down on AI investment and implementation. Citing the Avasant RadarView Report on Digital Services 2021-2021, Markowitz writes that institutions should:

Reimagine the student experience by leveraging AI-based solutions for providing personalized communication, gamifying learning experiences, and employing bots to answer queries. "Creating differentiated experiences through personalization and immersive education will play a crucial role in the growth of remote learning," said Avasant's Research Leader, Pooja Chopra, in a prepared statement. "Educational institutions should collaborate with EdTech companies and progressive service providers to accelerate digital transformation."

The Georgia Research Alliance is leading an important NSF-funded, $20 million project to establish the NSF AI Institute for Adult Learning and Online Education (ALOE), headquartered at Georgia Tech. The ALOE Institute will develop new AI theories and techniques as well as new models of lifelong learning, and evaluate their effectiveness at Georgia Tech, Georgia State and multiple colleges within the Technical College System of Georgia, as well as with corporate partners IBM, Boeing and Wiley. Accenture is also participating in the project.

The future of AI is evolving rapidly. There is an international race to take the lead in producing hardware and software for all fields, including education. As Olivia Brookhouse writes, AI is already offering chat bots that can better understand and express social and emotional intelligence. In the longer term, one may ask, as Meghan O’Gieblen does, can robots evolve into “machines of loving grace”?

Are you prepared for sentient computers? How might these serve the learning process? What is the pathway your institution is preparing for AI in the remainder of this decade? Do you have a role in leading the creation of a vision for the future?

Are you ready for the 4IR and the implementation of AI? If you feel you could use a primer on artificial intelligence, I recommend this brief introduction to the key elements of AI, as well as an introduction to some of the applications and concerns. For a deeper dive, Andrew Ng -- co-founder of Coursera and a leading expert in AI -- offers AI for Everyone, a course for even the nontechnical. Ng has taught more than five million learners and is rated as among the top instructors on Coursera.

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