How will AI change how we think and learn maths?


Mathematics and artificial intelligence (AI) are natural partners. I can only apologise to anyone who hated maths at school for this statement, but to my mind, it’s impossible to engage with AI without understanding some maths. One commentator summed it up: “A person working in the field of AI who doesn’t know math is like a politician who doesn’t know how to persuade. Both have an inescapable area to work upon!”

Maths and AI: Inextricably linked

Why does maths matter for AI? Surely the point of AI is that the algorithm learns for itself, and you don’t have to do anything? Except that you do. You need to understand the basis on which it is learning and training itself, and you need to be able to see when the algorithm has gone off course and needs retraining in some way.

More importantly, you need to be able to explain how the algorithm has learned and what it has learned so that you can understand and justify decisions made with the support of AI.

A number of regulatory regimes, such as banking, require decisions to be justifiable and explicable. You cannot treat AI as a "black box" and just hope for the best. This topic becomes even more important when one starts to think about the ethical issues behind the use of AI. If you don’t know what it’s doing, how do you know it is being fair, unbiased – and protected classes are indeed protected?

To understand AI, you have to understand maths

Put like that, it is clear that mathematics and AI cannot be separated. To have any chance of understanding AI, you need to understand some basic mathematical concepts. What’s more, as AI becomes more ubiquitous, more and more people will need to understand those basic concepts.

You may think that is OK. People can just learn maths from the internet or courses, surely? A number of curators have helpfully provided lists of essential maths for AI, like this one.

However, even as a mathematician, this looks like a fairly daunting list, ranging from vectors of all kinds, through matrices, into calculus and out the other side into probability. I’m really not sure that anyone who isn’t already interested in maths – and has studied it to a reasonably high level – is ever going to get through that. They’re certainly not going to manage it using YouTube videos, as the writer suggests.

Changing the way that we teach and learn

I think this could become a real problem in the future, and one that requires some radical rethinking in a number of areas. Why? Because maths is not exactly universally popular. Perhaps it is the way that it is taught in schools, but it tends to divide opinions. You either love it or hate it – and the people who hate it find it difficult, challenging and tend to give up on it.

If media reports about employer concerns are to be believed, increasing numbers of young people are leaving school without even a grasp on basic arithmetic, never mind more advanced concepts like probability.

There is a fundamental mismatch here. I think we need to change how we teach maths. It needs to be more relevant, and it also needs to be more engaging. In other words, learners need to see how it relates to their lives. Back in 2018, Jurgen Kaselowsky suggested that we needed to change what we teach in schools. For example, he believes that it is now far more important to learn about probability, predictions and statistics, and that not enough of this is covered in schools.


Make it relevant

I agree with Jurgen that we also need to change how we teach to make it more relevant. At an event a few years ago to mark Tech Week, we invited some children from Years 9 and 10 into SAS UK Headquarters to learn about data science. They did some work on who Taylor Swift might date in the future (yes, really!) and were thoroughly engaged.

Jurgen’s suggestion is that young people should be analysing their WhatsApp chats and groups: Can you tell whose phone has been confiscated, and for how long, for example? That is both practical and interesting – and relevant to the lives of young people.

We have to move away from esoteric learning for the sake of learning. We live in a practical world, and that’s what people want. Maths teaching should be both relevant and practical so that it shows people how maths can and will be useful to them.

Most importantly, we need people to want to learn more because it will enable them to engage with AI in the future. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our collective future depends on it.

Tags AI ethics

About Author

Dr. Laurie Miles

Director, Global Cloud Analytics

Laurie Miles is a Global Director of Cloud Analytics, providing analytical advice and thought leadership globally across all industry verticals. He brings over 25 years of real-world analytics experience to the role. After joining SAS in 1996, Laurie was a consultant delivering analysis focussed projects to organisations from a variety of industry sectors including financial services, telecommunications, retail and utilities. He became SAS UK’s Head of Retail Banking Technology in 2000. Laurie was later appointed Head of Analytics for SAS UK & Ireland in 2008, working with some of the UK’s largest organisations providing strategic advice and forming industry best practice. In this role Laurie also pioneered the development of the SAS Analytics-as-a-Service solution, “SAS Results”. In January 2015 was appointed to lead this globally as part of the SAS Cloud Analytics proposition. Laurie holds a BSc in Econometrics, an MSc in Game Theory and a PhD in Number Theory.

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