Humans are nearly unique among all living beings in the ability to create tools. (I say nearly because some species of ape use simple tools but they don’t create computers.) By creating tools we have been able to expand the limited capacity of our body and minds. Our tools have gotten dramatically more capable. Back 200 years ago if you wanted to kill somebody, you had to use a gun or a knife and could only kill in your local area. Today you can push a button to launch an ICBM and vaporize a city on the other side of the planet. I believe however that Artificial General Intelligence will be more important and significant than even that capability.
The pace of humanity’s progress over time is governed by three things as I see it: computing capacity, communications and time. By computing capacity I mean the amount of human brains on the planet. More brains means more ways of thinking of things. Communications governs how fast new ideas spread, which in turn spark other ideas. Time is how to measure how much thinking is done per unit. Once people had more free time, they were able to solve more problems. If you are worried about where your next meal is coming from, you don’t typically think about how gravity works too much.
Today we live in a society which has very rapid progress because we have 1. many human beings, 2. very rapid communications worldwide and 3. lots more free time.
Artificial General Intelligence
As I had mentioned this week there are really two kinds of AI. Limited AI is artificial intelligence that can act only on a limited set of information. It is task specific. We sometimes call them Expert Systems. The real holy grail is of AI research is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is where you can take an AI, put it into any situation and it will react like a human would. First I want to look at the implications of AGI then I will get to applications to education.
I think that AGI is the ultimate disruptive innovation. For the first time in human history, we won’t be creating a tool to extend the human mind, we will be creating a new independent mind, which can then use tools itself. Think about how this will change the progress equation; we can manufacture new minds to add to the pool of world thinking power, these machines will be much faster than we are a communicating and they run much faster than we do so have comparatively more free time. What this means most likely will be an explosion in creativity and progress the likes of which we have never seen. Ray Kurzweil calls this the Singularity. It’s an inflection point in history which we can’t see past. We can predict sort of what might happen in the future right now because we are all human, but how can we predict what an AGI will do? It’s like discovering alien life. All the existing rules go out the window.
Now, barring some amazing revolution in the field, I don’t think we will get to AGI in the near future. Even Ray Kurzweil, who is a distinct optimist in this area, thinks it will take until about 2045. So what happens before that?
Limited AI (Expert Systems)
Computers are still getting faster and faster. Moore’s Law observes that computers will be thousands of times faster in just 10 years. An Expert System (ES) functions on input and processing power. I’ve been paying special attention this year to how computers are getting better at recognizing and understanding our world. Facial recognition, speech recognition, gesture recognition and more are all new senses for computers. An ES can take all this information and make better and better decisions. So, take a bunch of information, quantify it, and feed it to a bunch of processing. You can then get some insights into the data you might you expect.
Here’s a video interview from 1989 with the developer of Expert Systems, Edward Feigenbaum. He predicts some interesting things, some of which have already happened.
How AI comes to education
One of the most popular posts on this site is something I wrote a few years ago called Computers Will Replace Teachers, and Here’s How… I’ve been thinking about how that might happen. At first I thought it would require something like AGI but I realized recently you don’t actually need full AGI, you just need an Expert System (actually one for each subject).
Think about what a teacher does, simplified. Following a lesson plan (which often times is not written by them) present material to students on a particular subject. Answer questions along the way and then assess how much of the material has been retained and internalized by the students.
(Ok teachers, I know you do more than that. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I have great admiration for teachers simply because it’s a nearly impossible job but you try it anyway. Enjoy your summer!)
An ES works best when it is limited to a single subject (like most classes). It can be programmed to follow a lesson plan. It can answer student questions (see Watson). When used in an online setting it can have access to many many metrics being built into LMS system. The last few years have been about Learning Analytics right? You need an ES to process all that anyway. The computer can also find out a lot more about students. By watching facial expressions and measuring the pulse and respiration, the computer will have a better feel for how a student is doing than a teacher can in an online setting.
What happens next
Here’s where I see this all going. Teachers aren’t going anywhere in the classroom. What will happen though is online learning systems will become smarter and more able to provide assistance to the online teacher. Eventually, somebody will skip the middle man (teacher) and have an ES tutor help the student directly. This will first replace Teaching Assistants in low level courses. There will be a good side effect from this. Right now the amount of classes available for a student to take is limited because if you need a teacher, the economics only work when you have lot of students. College seniors are constantly frustrated with not being able to take a last class to graduate because it’s not being offered. With ES systems you can have classes on demand in thousands of subjects.
This will happen much faster than people might imagine because they still think of AI as being synonymous with robots. AIs don’t live in robots. An AI is to robots as a Human is to a car. A robot is just a tool. In fact, AIs can be in multiple places at once. You can truly say that the Internet will get smart and because you are dealing with software innovation, it can spread everywhere literally overnight.
I predict we will see a number of private companies creating curriculum to teach thousands of subjects, all administered by Expert Systems. Many people will prefer to learn from a live person, but it will be good enough for many others, especially in the developing world.
What is going to make the difference between utopia and dystopia in the rest of this century is to develop every individual to their fullest extent. Mass education where every student is treated exactly the same and is taught the same way won’t do it. Instead we will require a level of mass personalized education never attempted before. The only way this will happen on a global scale is with Expert Systems. Hopefully we will then be smart enough and wise enough so the eventual AGI system will decide we are worth keeping around. :)
For more check out this very recent article.