Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Artificial Intelligence of Education

                Although the reactions were a bit more muted, recent reports of a computer beating the world Go champion prompted some of the same thoughts as when Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997. There were some apocalyptic doom cries, pronunciations of a paradigm shift and/or a giant leap towards the singularity, and plenty of predictions about what this means for the future of schools and work.
                Perhaps its future shock fatigue. Maybe it’s because as much as things seem to change, they seem to stay the same in many ways. I’m not saying this is not a significant event in the development of technology and perhaps our relationship with it. Or perhaps not.  After all, is this really that surprising? It’s been nearly 20 years since that famous chess match, and computing power and artificial intelligence has increased tremendously since then.  Like chess, Go is a game of logic, albeit an incredibly complex one. Thus, it makes perfect sense that a machine can outperform a human when it comes to processing a series of if-then statements and making the best choice.
                That’s where my frustration begins to simmer. I don’t doubt this is a powerful form of artificial intelligence. But it’s a very limited view of intelligence, especially in terms of human potential. It neglects that which sets human apart. It’s one that we often reject. Consider how we react to those who are purely logical. The robotic, Spock-ian pointy-heads make us uncomfortable. As usual, emotions flood our system and drown the rational. We call that a human response.
                Even though we know this, when asked to explain intelligence, we tend to fall back on those typical left-side-of-the-brain processes. Especially in education. Think about what most schools measure, stress, develop, et cetera. Even when we know better. We’ve read our Gardner and our Goleman and our Costa and our Dweck.  Let’s take the topic of growth mindset and effort. It has gained traction and we know they are vital to deep, long-lasting learning. We can sense it in different ways. Now there is a debate raging about whether or not we can measure it. If we can’t, many say and others imply, we should neglect this.
                Ironically, it’s fear rather than logic that for so long has kept educators from fully embracing the possibilities of technology. Not just the overly simply fear of change. It’s fear of all the ramifications of having to dismantle philosophical and practical hierarchies that have shaped schools for decades. That’s why so much educational technology is merely a fancy repacking of old practices, i.e. worksheets gone digital. A very rational, black-and-white system with clear right-and-wrong responses.  The more powerful technology becomes, the more it threatens that model.
                What if we shift the thinking and re-frame the question? It’s a logical step—one that can also flip the emotions. Technology is not a threat. As educators—those who should be about the potential of human—we need to ask, “What can technology allow us to do? What can it allow us to become?”
                Then we may realize that the most artificial thing about intelligence in education has been the limited ways we’ve thought about it.


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