Monday, May 25, 2009

Singularity: The end of all formal education?

No self-respecting blog -- and this is one, trust me -- purporting to be about education in the 21st century (and beyond) could be complete without at least some discussion about Singularity. After I planned to write this post, I realized I had actually mentioned it once before, but that doesn't really count because it merited no more than a mention in that post. So, let's talk about Singularity.

Well, there's a whole lot to talk about, and there are several books on the subject. Unfortunately, the word has several connotations that are only loosely-related; and besides, being a buzzword, it's now cool to pepper conversations and blogs (like this one) with the term. [Try it yourself: slowly, and in a hushed voice, like in those previews for sci-fi movies, say the word 'singularity', letting each syllable roll off you tongue and vanish into the abyss like the astronaut in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now didn't that feel so cool?]

So let me narrow down this discussion to just one type of singularity, the one to which Ray Kurzweil has devoted his book on the subject and also a website. The one of interest to us is technological singularity. Kurzweil extrapolates Moore's Law which models the exponentially accelerating pace of technological progress in the field of semiconductors to all advanced technologies, and projects the curve forward and backward in time.The singularity postulate predicts that technological breakthroughs and paradigm shifts will occur at an increasing rate and a point will be reached when it will outstrip the ability of human beings to comprehend it. From that point on, machines will emerge that exceed human intelligence and will be capable of evolving on their own. Combining these artificial intelligences with human beings will give rise to what Kurzweil calls transhumans. The book's blurb on Kurzweil's Singularity website says:
The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.
And it will happen in 2045. Note that down in your Google Calendar and set it up with an email or pop-up alert.

Just in time for the party to begin comes the New York Times with an article, grandiosely titled --- in the fashion of the Breathless Journalism fraternity -- "The Coming Superbrain". Let's see what John Markoff has to say.
Artificial intelligence is already used to automate and replace some human functions with computer-driven machines. These machines can see and hear, respond to questions, learn, draw inferences and solve problems. But for the Singulatarians, A.I. refers to machines that will be both self-aware and superhuman in their intelligence, and capable of designing better computers and robots faster than humans can today. Such a shift, they say, would lead to a vast acceleration in technological improvements of all kinds.
According to Kurzweil, things will be even more fun:
Not content with the development of superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality possible — within his lifetime.
Now, how cool is that? While the above may seem far-fetched, Wired Magazine editor Kevin Kelley paints a somewhat more believable scenario:
He is at work on his own book, “The Technium,” forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence. He just isn’t certain about how soon an intelligent global brain will arrive.
I'll leave out the article's discussion of B-movie type doomsday scenarios meant to bring out of their caves the same folks who raised a hue-and-cry about the Large Hadron Collider letting Black Hole-lets escape and swallow the universe; the New York Times has to cater to all of their constituencies, especially at a time when circulation is plummeting.

Just for fun, let's pretend Singularity is going to happen, okay? Now let's just talk about the consequences of Singularity for education. Imagine that we will be able to UPLOAD the contents of our brains to a computer's storage device. Even better, what if the reverse is also possible -- DOWNLOADING information, and just maybe, knowledge, to one's brain? Will this result in instant learning? No more sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, or reading books, or logging on and taking tests, working on assignments and so on. After all, the entire edifice of education is constructed on the premise that acquiring information -- and knowledge -- is a long, painstaking process which requires a variety of means in which information is attempted to be transferred to an individual and varied methods of testing whether learning actually has occurred.

But what, exactly, is learning? Is learning merely the transfer of information in a manner that it persists in memory? Is there more to learning than this? What is needed to insure that an individual is able to associate those fragments of information with relevant situations and questions? What sort of processing occurs in the brain to transform information received by our senses into knowledge that we can both experience within and which we can employ in appropriate contexts?

Or maybe Singularity implies that we don't need to learn anything at all, since there are intelligent machines who do all the learning for us and act as needed on the world around. So, does that mean that all we need to do is live a life of leisure, the Holy Grail of so many science fiction novels and particularly the sort of future envisioned by many so-called Futurists? From observing my own behavior and that of many others in this world, it is quite clear that these 'futurists' were hallucinating when they wrote of an era of Endless Leisure. A significant fraction of humanity is not comfortable with leisure for very long. They get bored and want to go and do something. Being engaged in activity -- not just leisure activity -- appears to be wired into our DNA. The majority of people would like to engage in at least some activity they feel to be productive rather than recreational as a means of providing their lives with a sense of purpose.

The need for purpose is a very strong force motivating human action. Most people, it appears, might go insane if their lives were devoid of perceived purpose. Having machines doing all one's thinking and acting doesn't seem to be a scenario that most would prefer for a period any longer than a vacation.

So, even if the Singularity does arrive -- and I wouldn't count it out -- it likely would only lead us to another significant paradigm shift where we search for new frontiers of thinking, knowing and acting: perhaps beyond the bounds of this planet.

I don't think the Singularity will end formal education, although it very likely will transform it.

I hope the Singularity arrives in my lifetime -- I'm a geek and I love fancy stuff like this. I love excitement, newness, technology, and change -- and a chance to explore other corners of the universe.

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