Monday, October 22, 2018

Being Human among Computers: #el30

With a number of other online colleagues, I'm starting a new MOOC with Stephen Downes entitled "E-Learning 3.0". According to Stephen's introduction:
This course introduces the third generation of the web, sometimes called web3, and the impact on e-learning that follows. In this third generation we see greater use of cloud and distributed web technologies as well as open linked data and personal cryptography.
The first week featured a Google Hangout between Stephen in Canada and George Siemens in Australia. I've posted the video here, starting it about seven-and-a-half minutes in to avoid the setup issues.

As Jenny Mackness notes in her blog post about the conversation, Siemens and Downes wax philosophical in their conversation, centering "around what it means to be human and what is human intelligence in a world where machines can learn just as we do."

While I understand the fascination of such a question as computer technologies increasingly approximate many of our intellectual capabilities, in some ways the question seems moot. For me, part of what it means to be human is to use tools and technologies that enhance our innate human capabilities. Admittedly, most of our early tools enhanced our physical capabilities, making us stronger and faster and warmer, but from the beginning, we created technologies that enhanced our intellectual capabilities. I think of language as a technology, and I am not yet convinced that computers will change us more than language in both spoken and written forms has already done. I can almost see computers as a refinement and extension of language, which started with speech, eventually developed into writing—making marks also led to math and drawings—and is being expressed now through computers. Few things distinguish us from other life forms as much as our tools and technologies do.

Did Shakespeare write Hamlet or did the English language? Well, both actually.

Part of the fascination of this question about human vs. computer intelligence comes from our apprehension that computers will become more powerful than we are. This is an old fear, as the American folk tale of John Henry demonstrates, but for me, the lesson of John Henry is that we will continue to use computers to make us smarter despite our fears. I suppose the fearful prospect is if computers will use us to make themselves smarter or if they will simply come to ignore us, having become so smart themselves that our abilities add nothing to them. I don't think they will destroy us; rather, they'll abandon us. This is a problem mostly if you think that humans are the smartest thing in the universe and that computers will usurp our position. It seems rather chauvinistic to think that humans are the crowning achievement in this wondrously large and varied universe. The odds are surely against it, I think.

Almost all complex systems that I know about can learn: taking in information from the ecosystem, processing that information, making structural adjustments to better fit to their environments, and then feeding back information into the ecosystem, which likewise is trying to make a better fit for itself. I have no doubt that computers will do the same, and if our ecosystem comes to include smart machines, then we and the rest of the ecosystem will have to adapt to those new entities. The universe will manage that adaptation quite nicely and count itself more advanced for it.

But that's the long game. In the short game, I am keen to explore how smart machines can help me and my students learn differently, maybe better.

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