Rewriting the algorithm of education
Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Opinion - New Straits Times
August 23, 2020
Clearly education everywhere is at a crossroad. The development in the US and UK are two examples that continue to hog the headlines with some officials extending apologies on the decisions taken during the pandemic, while the other remains defiant.
Either way, it exhibits a deep sense of uncertainty with the students experiencing the worst of it all. Somehow the Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses of the current education system almost worldwide, including those with claims of being the "best" among the rest.
Yet they too suffered very much the same consequence as their regular counterparts. Some even worst off given the "elitist" ivory tower status that they have been promoting during the pre-Covid-19 days to the chagrin of many. More than that, much of the underlying "elitist" image are tainted by bias with discriminatory practices and policies.
The "Black Lives Matter" movement has forced the issue so much so that the anatomy of such institutions is laid bare. It has gone beyond just toppling of statutes and cursory change of names, but the depth of curriculum design, pedagogy and even the construct of the universities themselves.
The last issue is vital and has remained untouched since they were established evading the very notion of what is being questioned today. As such it is most shocking to find out that among the so-called "world-class" institutions, slavery and slave trading are not uncommon as a means to their survival then.
Perhaps even now, in an oblique way, with name of the slave traders serving as an epitome of "quality" education shamelessly. They are so opaque that many are deceived by the "brand names" that are used to recruit the best and the brightest. What goes unsaid is the inherent colonial mentality that continues to colour the mind at the same time.
Taking this to the ultimate conclusion, the "design" of education remains a suspect to say the least. This reminds us of the brewing controversy, as reported by Clare Sibthorpe of Sky News recently, in relation to what is labelled as "white algorithm" that lends to the development of "artificial intelligence" (AI) or sometimes called "machine intelligence."
It refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions. It therefore stands to reason that AI can also carry the prejudices and bias of humans.
It is not surprising for researchers to suggest that machines can have distinct racial identities and this perpetuates "real world" racial stereotypes. If this is the case for "machines," the same and more is conceivable for "education" that is delivered in no less a machine-like (read robotics) manner.
Experts who analysed recent research from a range of fields, including Human-Computer Interaction and Critical Race Theory, claim to "demonstrate that machines can be "racialised," and that thus promotes racial bias in the real world. This apparently includes work on how robots are seen to have "distinct racial identities, with black robots receiving more online abuse."
Such study and finding tends to mirror what happen in real life where black lives indeed matter. And education, especially conducted virtually is no difference. The research further reports that "non-abstract AI in internet search engine results usually had either Caucasian features or white."
In addition, most virtual voices in devices talked in "standard white middle-class English" while "ideas of adding black dialects have been dismissed as too controversial or outside the target market," the study concluded. In other words, "white" AI risks exacerbating racial inequality which has been taken for granted thus far, unknowingly or otherwise.
More significantly, the "whiteness" of AI is said to risk a "racially homogenous" workforce as humans create machines skewed by their biases, according to the University of Cambridge study that examined AI in society, including in films, Google searches, stock images and robot voices.
Moving forward, in attempting to resolve present educational predicament, it is imperative that the current slavery-colonial laced algorithm that has been framing what education today be rewritten. As we focus on the coming Merdeka celebration, we must ensure that the education system is truly Merdeka to begin with. Salam Merdeka!
The writer, a New Straits Times columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector