2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 4 – Fred Stitt Online Education

This is part of an on-going series about the 2012 Humanity+ conference:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3.1

Architect and educator, Fred Stitt spoke at H+ 2012 about the future of education.  Stitt said that he had problems with education from an early age.  It annoyed him how inefficient it was to transfer information in a traditional classroom lecture.  It has a very low rate of bits per minute according to Fred.  I am less inclined to discount the bit rate of non-verbal communication, but I agree with the overall sentiment.  The “Education is broken” meme is gaining steam as evidenced by Thiel’s 20 under 20 fellowship where he pays promising young people to forgo college and start working directly on the projects they are passionate about.

Stitt’s preferred solution to the education problem is a little less controversial, namely, online learning. Online learning has received a lot of attention lately.  Norvig and Thrun’s Stanford online AI class famously attracted more than 100,000 students and was recently transferred over to Udacity, which is a private player in the online learning space.  MIT is a big participant with it’s OpenCourseWare and edX partnership with Harvard.  Coursera, which partners with many schools such as Stanford, Caltech, and Duke rounds out the Big Three of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) world.  So many big name schools have already started providing courses online.

Of course, I don’t want to neglect one inspirational small player, the Khan academy whose earnest founder, Sal Khan, won over the hearts (and pried open the pocketbook) of the Gates foundation.  Sal records very engaging lessons himself primarily using a virtual blackboard.  The Khan academy has quizzes for students and tools to help teachers keep track of student progress.  There is also a cool map to show students which foundational skills are required to learn each subject. I am pleased to say that I myself contributed in a small way to this project when I helped Asante Africa image a bunch of laptops to help native translators could translate Khan academy videos into several African languages.  My friend David is really into a free-schooling and was less enamored with Khan academy when he checked it out.  He thought it was too geared toward helping kids pass tests as opposed to actually learning the material.  I do agree that Khan academy’s work is more complementary to rather than than a replacement for standard classroom education.

But yeah, online learning.  It’s a thing.  According to Stitt, one of the issues that make online learning so important is the discriminatory practices of the current education system.  He pointed out the quotas that previously restricted Jewish student enrollment at the ivy league colleges and the current Asian quotas that appear to be in place.  He also mentioned that the faculty pose one of the largest obstacles to broader adoption of online learning.  So academia appears to be populated with backward racist luddites.  Do tell, Fred, do tell.

Stitt did acknowledge some drawback to online learning such as the lack of accreditation.  He argues that there will be various mechanisms for teachers to sign off on student mastery of subject matter as the field matures, but that schools that have traditionally acted as guardians of accreditation are fighting to maintain the status quo.  Stitt seems to suggest that skyrocketing education costs will provide more opportunities for new players to disrupt this situation.  Another problem with online learning is the lack of personal contact and feedback.  One solution Stitt brought up that I found interesting is the concept of multiple campus enrollment.  He is apparently suggesting that online students would be able to physically attend multiple campuses to interact with students and teachers.  Arguably, the students who stand to benefit the most from online learning, such as those in remote or undeveloped parts of the world, don’t have access to campuses anyway.  Those folks might be stuck waiting for immersive virtual reality to provide a technical solution for remote personal interaction.

Finally, it seems from my notes that Stitt suggested online learning could provide a platform to research the learning process itself.  I scribbled something about optimizing perception and lobe activation.  Now that does seem interesting.  As teachers can gather more data about precisely how the courseware is consumed, they will be able to identify the highest value techniques for students with various learning styles.  The Inner Life of the Cell video comes to mind when thinking about optimizing perception and lobe activation.  The maker of this video also presented at H+ this year and I will say more about this later, but students that watched this video scored well above a control group deprived of this animation when testing time came.

There is plenty more to say about online learning in relation to free-schooling and also the question of how humans will stay competitive in the face of automation.  I will try to dig into that more in future posts.

UPDATE:  I just came across this article in which the One Laptop Per Child folks just dumped a bunch of tablets on some African kids and let them teach themselves.  I must say that I have some skepticism around free-schooling, but this is pretty compelling.  My nagging concern is that without some curriculum, kids will overlook important foundational knowledge that is maybe less fun or interesting.  I like the idea of presenting kids with a carefully curated set of apps to explore on their own.  With this approach, care can be taken to include stuff grownups agree is important.

Do science fiction writers really write the future?

This is my multi-part series on the 2012 Humanity+ conference:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

In my previoius post, I was discussing Kim Stanley Robinson’s talk at the 2012 Humanity+ conference.  One point I forgot to bring up was about the influence of writers.  Robinson made the assertion that the vision of H.G. Wells influenced the formation of the Bretton Woods system and thus deeply impacted the course of the 20th century.  I searched around but I couldn’t actually find anyone else who made that connection.  (At least no one sane.)  I tend to be skeptical when science fiction authors tell us how deeply impactful the work of science fiction authors is.  I heard this argument from Neal Stephenson at Black Hat this year where he promoted his Hieroglyph project.

Stephenson wants SF writers to start writing positive stuff to inspire the engineers again like they used to in the old days.  But I have a hard time blaming SF writers for the Great Stagnation of innovation.  SF writers have given us a bunch of great technology that the engineers have failed to deliver yet.  Where’s my immersive virtual reality?  Where’s my utility fog, dammit?  The world wide web was supposedly inspired by a dark story by Arthur C. Clarke, so engineers don’t appear to require HappyTimeUtopia stories to inspire them.

You know, I think that markets might play a role here somewhere.  Technically, we could probably build some sort of moon base, but no one wants to pay for it.  I was talking to a scientist from PARC at VLAB last night and told me that we spend more on air conditioning in Iraq than NASA’s entire budget.  So please don’t blame (or credit) the engineers or SF writers  too much for our lack of a bright shiny future.  Politics and markets play a pretty big role in what actually gets built.

2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 3 – Kim Stanley Robinson

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on the Humanity+ 2012 conference.
View: Part 1, Part 2

The next speaker from 2012 Humanity+ “Writing the future” conference was Kim Stanley Robinson.  Although I am personally a big fan of science fiction, I don’t think I’ve read any of his novels.  I understand that he is most well known for his Mars Trilogy.  It might be useful to quote his Wikipedia page:

Robinson has been described as anti-capitalist, and his work often portrays a form of frontier capitalism that promotes ideals that closely resemble socialist systems, and faced with a capitalism that is staunched by entrenched hegemonic corporations.

Robinson’s H+ talk certainly touched on some socialist themes.  He started out by saying that he considered the Humanity+ community and science fiction authors such as himself to be “Utopian fellow travelers” but then proceded to outline a number of potential problems with transhumanism.  Before moving on, I would like to bring up Pinker’s criticism of Utopianism.  People that believe in a future of infinite good continuing forever can rationally justify vast amounts of violence against anyone they perceive as interfering with this utopia.  In spite of Robinson’s (and Wikipedia’s) assertions, I don’t tend to view transhumanism as particularly utopian.  In fact, the dystopian cyberpunk movement was discussed in several talks over the weekend and is more aligned with H+ in my mind.

But I don’t want to indulge in the narcissism of small differences as Robinson allowed he might be doing when he criticized transhumanism.  His initial criticism is that transhumanism tends to be technology centered and it ignores politics and general well being as defined by Maslow’s hierarchy.  In Robinson’s view technology is fundamentally political.  He asserts that social systems like justice are technology themselves and he rightly points out that justice is unevenly distributed.  Ironically, he said that plans of Mars missions smacked of escapism.  “Let’s leave this mess we made of earth behind and start over.”

Robinson worries that the very term transhuman or posthuman separates it’s adherents from the masses.  It is apparently everyone’s obligation as good socialists to integrate themselves with the great unwashed.  Thus Robinson jokingly suggested renaming transhumanism to “Adequacy.”  I tease about his socialism, but I do think he took for granted that the audience shared his value system.  I am not sure that they did.  I have met a lot of libertarians and unapologetic elitists in this community.  I think Robinson would have made a more effective plea if he had taken that into consideration and directly addressed these opposing viewpoints.

As for the name “transhumanist,”  I am comfortable calling myself that, but I can see why some might associate it with the whole ubermensch idea.  Practically speaking when you say “transhumanist” to someone it either means nothing at all to them, or it can serve as short hand to mean you are into futurism and augmentation and such.  I’ve never told a prole that I was tranhumanist and had them pile scorn upon me for imagining I could transcend the human state which he himself was consigned to.  Also, to their credit, the organizers of the conference and magazine use the phrase Humanity+, not transhumanism to describe their thing.  Humanity is a nice inclusive word.

Robinson closed his talk with a discussion of AI.  According to my notes, Robinson basically equated AI with the scientific method, which may be a terrible typo, but I will go with it anyway.  I can see how the scientific method gave us a tool to greatly increase our understanding of the universe.  But I guess I would classify that as Intelligence Augmentation (IA).   Oh well, maybe it was just a typo after all.

Robinson goes on to state that AI cannot be created until we have a theory of consciousness.  He was skeptical in fact that AI could exist at all.  I guess he is discounting the argument that consciousness might not matter that much.  He invoked the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals for some reason I don’t recall, but it’s a cool thing to look up anyway.  Also he suggested that AI can’t exist until we solve the multiple realizability problem, which I hadn’t heard of so was another interesting thing to look up.  Though I don’t understand how it can asserted that some general psychological state like pain cannot be reduced to more specific psychological states could actually map to physical states.   Just as anyone can distinguish between a sharp and dull pain, a master of mindfulness might be able to make further distinctions.  There must a limit, that line between the conscious and unconscious, but that just suggests to me that names are abstractions that refer to classes of experiences.  I don’t see the problem.  I guess I will need to hit up plato.standford.edu at some point.

Over all, I found myself disagreeing with Robinson quite a bit, but I thought his talk was provocative and interesting.

More 2012 Humanity+ commentary coming soon …