Lego Robot

Although we’ve been teaching kids to write programs for computers since the first day we brought them into the classroom, it’s only been relatively recently that we heard the call from educators, politicians, and pundits to have coding for all!

Maybe we should even have every kid train to become an app developer, because that’s where the money was going. Or something like that.

But what happens if artificial intelligence “learns” to write software?

Farhad Manjoo, a tech writer for the New York Times, says that’s coming quickly and “It’s the End of Computer Programming as We Know It.” He feels fine about it.

Over the next few years, A.I. could transform computer programming from a rarefied, highly compensated occupation into a widely accessible skill that people can easily pick up and use as part of their jobs across a wide variety of fields. This won’t necessarily be terrible for computer programmers — the world will still need people with advanced coding skills — but it will be great for the rest of us. Computers that we can all “program,” computers that don’t require specialized training to adjust and improve their functionality and that don’t speak in code: That future is rapidly becoming the present.

In other words, humans wouldn’t have to actually know how to write the code. They just need to be able to describe to the bot what it is they want the program to do.

Which requires a somewhat different skillset than assembling a program. One not taught in most K12 schools, even in those “coding for all” classes.

Manjoo closes the column with a note about trying to teach coding to his own children.

I’ve tried to introduce my two kids to programming the way my dad did for me, but both found it a snooze. Their disinterest in coding has been one of my disappointments as a father, not to mention a source of anxiety that they could be out of step with the future. (I live in Silicon Valley, where kids seem to learn to code before they learn to read.) But now I’m a bit less worried. By the time they’re looking for careers, coding might be as antiquated as my first PC.

As best I can remember, one of the justifications for adding computer science to the standard curriculum (as was done in Virginia), was because programming was fast becoming a necessary job skill. Students who graduated without it would have a harder time in college and the workplace.

Except that, by the time kids currently learning to code in the 6th grade graduation, it’s possible, even likely, computers will be doing a better job than humans at writing their own code.

Certainly every student needs to understand the basics of the logical process behind the devices they’re using, along with what happens when that logic fails or is used incorrectly. Adults too.

But the likely rise of AI that can write code better than most humans is just one more reason why putting every kid through computer science classes in K12 is still the wrong goal.

And a distraction from the curriculum overhaul we really need to make.

The photo is of a robot my niece and nephews built for their First Lego League competition. That program is much more about problem solving than it is writing programs, and a good example of an approach that should be part of every school’s curriculum.