I have always envied Alexander the Great, because he had Aristotle as a personal tutor. In those days, Aristotle knew pretty much everything there was to know. Even better, Aristotle understood the mind of Alexander. He understood which topics interested Alexander, what Alexander knew and did not know, and what kinds of explanations Alexander preferred. Aristotle had been a student of Plato, and he was himself a great teacher. We know from his writings that he was full of examples, explanations, arguments, and stories. Through Aristotle, Alexander had the knowledge of the world at his command.
With that, Danny Hillis^W, E ^ introduces his idea for Aristotle, an AI tutor that will move in a smarter web he calls the knowledge web. I find his dream somewhat unconvincing, somewhat pedantically unrealistic and somewhat suspicious of oversimplification. (Even though he considers it but a steppingstone towards Neal Stephenson’s Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer^ WP, ELZR^, which I love.) It is from the eminent responses to his essay where there’s gold.
The trick, of course, is achieving lift-off. My suggestion [for starting the knowledge web] would be, rather than approaching the likes of Cisco or another corporate giant looking to train people about their industry, would be to tackle a highly critical and desperate area: a disease like cancer, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis, where armies of “untrained” but highly intelligent victims and families might like to lend their own cognitive processes to finding a cure. The Lorenzo’s Oil contingent, if you will. They could prove a perfect test sample for your tutoring hypothesis, allowing them to become more versed in cancer-specific treatment methodologies than most physicians, without having to go to medical school.
And it might be the kind of cause that would generate more immediate acceptance of the applicability of this system to the world’s most pressing problems.
So Hillis is right: we need multiple new strategies [for overcoming information overload]. Tutor software is one, communities of practice and learning are another, search strategies are another. The really good news is that we already make a lot of progress. Try inputting this string into Google: “cell phone fell in toilet”. You can probably imagine why somebody would be curious about that, but I doubt you can imagine the richness of human experience and the usefulness of the information that Google can reveal on this extraordinarily important (for some people, at some urgent moments) topic. That’s a community of learning coming into existence unconsciously, as people have similar experiences and share their experience and their learning in the public space of the Web.. That community didn’t really exist, of course, until the search engine found it, on demand from me.
..all our deliberate strategies for better information management and better learning need to remember that it’s the apparently low-level enabling techniques that have the biggest impact the quickest.
Absolutely every function that can be provided by an AI interface can be provided by an honest interface better. Let’s make a “Google” instead of an “Ask Jeeves.” Let’s make something with a user interface that’s honest about what it can do and leave fantasies of future AI to the movie makers.
Automation is so easy to have illusions about when it comes to something like education, where it’s hard to measure efficacy.
If you want to cure a case of excessive cheer, go take a look at some of the current textbooks and see how much they cost. I saw one recently in New York, a big, expensive elementary school math textbook filled with color pictures of diverse people who “love math”, but displaying no love of math itself. It was also filled with errors. Look at how cheap video game boxes are and how expensive crummy required textbooks are. While medicine and defense are the first choices for those who think of the government as the worlds stupidest but most reliable customer, education comes in as a close third.
In the Education world there is a knee-jerk belief I call instructionism: to improve learning, improve teaching. I don’t say teaching is bad. But I want to minimize the ratio of teaching to learning. What we need far more than better instruction is better skills and better conditions (epistemological conditions even more urgently than material conditions) for learner-directed learning.
Like some of the greatest world-teachers I love parables as carriers of ideas. So please imagine yourself in a country where arithmetic relies on Roman numerals. People with problems involving quantities are having trouble googling appropriate methods. Two modes of improvement are proposed. One is a mechanical tutor that can figure out from a database of life experiences why this individual has trouble remembering whether to use IIII or IV. The other is to invent Arabic numerals and make this available to everyone irrespective of psychological trivia.
Yes I know. We don’t have to choose. But with limited time and resources we might want to.
In spite of massive efforts to make science and mathematics attractive with interactive programs and elegant graphics, the majority of our students remain scientifically and mathematically illiterate. The minority who assimilate the intellectual riches that computers have to offer are similar to the minority who in earlier times became addicted to science by building radios or collecting beetles.
Another question arises when we contemplate the future of Aristotle. What will happen if Aristotle is successful? The historic Aristotle let loose upon the world a young military genius who led his armies over Europe and Asia and Africa, looting cities and destroying kingdoms. We do not know whether the historic Aristotle is to be blamed for the death and destruction wrought by his pupil. But we should at least make sure that our future Aristotles do not instill into their pupils the capacity and the desire to conquer the world. Perhaps it would be safer to go back to analog devices such as tape recorders and tape-decks. [Can’t help thinking on Card’s children WP here, can you?]