It’s back-to-school time again. In my day, your lunch box said a lot about you. The lunch box was more important than the first day of school outfit. In 8th grade mine displayed the Six Million Dollar Man. (I should have kept it - this one is worth $135 on eBay.) When my grandson starts 3rd grade this fall, I’m thinking that a custom “AI lunchbox” might be appropriate for school kids in 2023. Has the world changed?

In 1974 we were told: “We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster.” So, Steve Austin (the Six Million Dollar Man) got bionics - one arm, both legs, and an eye. Steve benefited from the new technology in ways related to either sports or fighting crime – his choice. At that time, the first “minicomputers” were the size of a large suitcase and robots were just starting to move engine blocks around in automobile manufacturing in Detroit. Steve’s bionic powers were a big hit with junior high kids, but in 1974 people were still “smarter” than computers. No one thought about making Steve’s brain better. That was then. This is now.

Today, students carry around super computers with three live-action cameras and as many as a dozen sensors including facial recognition, ranging, geolocation, QR code readers, and even flower identification apps. That last one is one of my favorites. “That bionic eye is super cool Steve, but I have an iPhone.”

The biggest change for kids going back to school today is what those handheld supercomputers now bring – artificial intelligence. Facial recognition access controls and flower identification apps are just the tip of the iceberg. We have all read about how students are using generative AI applications like ChatGPT to answer questions about everything from 17th century philosophers and calculus to the symbolism of Moby Dick. At a recent guest lecture at our local business school, I asked the class how many have used ChatGPT. The majority of hands went up. When I asked what they thought about the generative AI application as an educational tool, half of the class said, “It’s cheating!”

The education system, from elementary to graduate school, is determining when AI is a great new tool for faster, deeper learning and when it’s a nemesis bringing undetectable plagiarism. Disagreement on the value of new technology is not new. I am pretty sure that if Steve Austin had shown up to run track or play football at my high school, he would have been disqualified as a cheater. But as a crime fighter he was the best.

My challenge with today’s lunch box is “Will AI make my grandson better or will it lead him astray?” I have the same view as Marc Andreessen who recently posted that “AI will save the world.” I plan to teach all my grandkids how to ask questions to learn faster. Curiosity is fundamental to learning. But they must also question the integrity of every answer – “Why do I have to do it that way, Papa?” AI will never replace critical thinking as a way to be better at solving problems.

That’s not to say that AI won’t have downsides – every new technology has both good and bad consequences. But I am excited for how AI can help kids learn faster and be both more creative and innovative. I believe this new AI lunch box would inspire my grandson to be better just as the Six Million Dollar Man inspired me.

Photo: "Six Million Dollar Man 41" by tohoscope is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Tamarack Technology, Inc. is a leading provider of independent software, operational, and technology services supporting the equipment finance industry for more than 20 years.


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