Kids need to get with the programme

School students at a First Lego League event, where they are challenged to design robots
School students at a First Lego League event, where they are challenged to design robots
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Stephen Hawking fears AI will inherit the earth – but if we invest in IT skills for children humans may still have a chance, say Fiona McNeill and Laura Meikle

Readers may be aware of Professor Stephen Hawking’s recent warning about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence: “[It] could spell the end of the human race…Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Having spent the past four months watching what robots can do, and what the bright young minds in Scotland can achieve, we take a very different view.

The First LEGO League (FLL) is a contest where children design robots to complete a variety of challenges. This year, the tournament has spread across Scotland, igniting the imagination of more than 250 young people here, who join some 200,000 fellow students in 80 countries around the world.

The Young Academy of Scotland, an affiliate of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, has been working with Lambda Jam, a Scottish non-profit company set up to foster problem solving skills in children, and the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), UK organisers of FLL, to instil engineering know-how and a passion for science among the participants.

The events in Scotland recently culminated in regional tournaments in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as completing a series of robotics tasks, the teams imagined useful inventions to redesign how we gather knowledge and develop skills in the 21st century.

In setting up the FLL in Scotland, a major focus has been broadening participation: helping schools get involved which otherwise would not be able to.

With support from Cloudsoft Corporation, Heriot-Watt University, British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, a significant part of this activity has been the development of a network of engineer-mentors, who have coached teams during their preparations for the tournament.

Additionally, registration fees were covered, and half of the teams were able to borrow robot kits, thus ensuring inclusion for schools with low familiarity with robotics and computing, and those with limited financial resources.

In today’s digital world, it is vital to have a population that is both equipped to use technology and full of technological innovators, not least in the workforce, where the enormous growth in the sector looks set to continue.

Unfortunately, recent statistics on computer science in schools and universities raise serious concerns. According to the industry group ScotlandIS, we are facing an acute IT skills shortage, accompanied with a shortfall in the number of graduates entering the jobs market: Scotland’s universities produced only 1,800 qualified graduates a year, leaving a huge deficit of around 10,000 vacancies.

Given the demand, why is there such a marked decline in skilled graduates?

The grass-roots organisation, Computing at School (CAS) Scotland cites three reasons.

Firstly, confusing ICT (using computers for word processing and spreadsheets) with computer science (programming and problem solving) is rife among students, parents, teachers and even government ministers.

Secondly, with little exposure to computer science prior to sitting their Nationals, Highers, and going to university, students are not aware of or interested in pursuing the subject.

Thirdly, the number of computing teachers has fallen by nearly 14 per cent since 2012, and in such a fast-changing discipline there is need for continual professional development, which is often lacking.

Efforts such as FLL Scotland, CAS Scotland’s plans for professional development, as well as the recently announced skills investment plan from Skills Development Scotland, are making a positive difference.

In a survey of participants of this year’s FLL in Scotland, 99 per cent of respondents indicated they would like to take part again, and the most common words used to de-scribe the competition were “fun” and “exciting”.

However, what thrills us is that the third most popular word to describe the events was “difficult”. Young people enjoy addressing challenges: we need to make sure that they are given opportunities to engage and stretch their abilities.

Returning to Prof Hawkins, we believe that the chances of robots taking over the world are slight. As the children who participated in our events could tell you, even getting a robot to shoot a football into a goal reliably is “difficult” – one of this year’s hardest missions.

The professor’s warning is best taken as a call to action to ensure that our students learn about robotics and computing, and are prepared to be creators of technology rather than consumers who are afraid of it.

Hawking makes a bigger mistake, however, in describing our evolutionary potential as slow: genetics and biology may move slowly, but it is astounding how quickly the new generation can absorb and be inspired by ideas when given the chance to do so.

• Fiona McNeill is a lecturer in computer science at Heriot Watt University and a member of the Young Academy of Scotland

• Laura Meikle is chief officer at Lambada Jam