Robots in Classrooms?

Learning, News of the Weird, Teacher Quality

You know you’re a little obsessed with an issue when a news story about artificial intelligence in the prisons of today gets you thinking about robots in the classrooms of tomorrow.
But there it was — a weekend piece in the New York Times about a training exercise at a penitentiary in West Virginia, at which artificial intelligence (AI) software was being used to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. “When two groups of inmates moved toward each other,” we learn, “the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.” Then I read the lines that concerned me: “The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants. . . At work or school, the technology opens the door to a computerized supervisor that is always watching. Are you paying attention, goofing off or daydreaming?”
On one level, what’s not to like, right? Why not improve our efficiency if we can, and make sure we are even more safe and secure in our prisons? And why not extend this technology wherever it can be useful? Bring on the Society of Tomorrow!
On the other hand, I just finished Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s great 2009 book How the Mind Works, and his observations about the limits of AI — and how people learn — make me wonder if we’re making the same mistake in AI that we’re doing in education reform: getting carried away by an illusory short cut and ignoring one-half of the equation we need to solve.
More specifically, Pinker talks about why we don’t yet have those cool robot butlers from Sleeper — the human brain is (spoiler alert!) really, really complicated, and programming it to account for all we encounter on a daily basis is next to impossible. In short, we may not sweat the small stuff, but our efforts to make fancy robots derail because they can’t get past the small stuff.
For example, Pinker writes, “for a robot brain – or a human brain – to recognize objects and not bump into them, it must crunch these numbers and guess what kinds of objects in the world reflected the light that gave rise to them. The problem is humblingly difficult. . . But there’s nothing common about common sense. And an intelligent system cannot be stuffed with trillions of facts. It must be equipped with a smaller list of core truths and a set of rules to deduce their implications.”
Later, Pinker talks about how we do this by clarifying the distinction between intelligence (“the ability to attain goals in the faces of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational, truth-obeying, rules”) and consciousness (“the capacity for self-knowledge and sentience”). We can’t make Hollywood-worthy robots, he explains, because what makes us unique is that we possess both intelligence and consciousness. We can read people’s faces and interpret sounds and smells and colors and emotions and apply past experiences and decide what’s relevant information at that moment and connect it to our belief system and do it all seamlessly and instantaneously. Robots can do the intelligent number-crunching, but since we still don’t even understand sentience ourselves — except to say that it exists — how the hell could we hope to instill it in a machine?
This is not an insignificant point, and it doesn’t render AI worthless, but it does underscore the need for AI to serve in a complementary fashion, and to recognize that there are still some aspects of the human brain (and mind, which is, of course, what the brain does) that can’t be replaced. Use cameras to augment the work of your prison guards; don’t replace the guards altogether.
The problem, one can clearly see, is if the combination of budget cuts and a misunderstanding of what AI can and can’t do vis a vis human employees leads to 21st-century prisons being guarded by video cameras. I see a similar issue emerging in education, where our well-founded emphasis on improving the quality of teaching and learning is leading us to overvalue one side of the equation (intelligence, or, more specifically in a school context, technique) and ignore the other (consciousness, or, more specifically, the identity and integrity of the individual who is doing the teaching).
It is a technocratic illusion that all we need to improve American education is a set of useful techniques that can unlock the magic of the teaching craft. Technique is important, and many recent breakthroughs have made immeasurable contributions to the field. But when we embrace technique as the answer for our troubles, we deny the deeply relational aspect of teaching and learning. We also set ourselves up for believing, one day, that all we need are systems with the right set of pre-programmed techniques and, Voila! No achievement gap!
The scary thing is that that is not as ridiculous a statement as it should be. And yet if we say nothing in our public discourse or policy debates to suggest a recognition — let alone a valuing — of the teacher as person and relational conduit for learning, why not just get rid of them and run it on auto-pilot?
To really transform our schools, of course, we must do the opposite. As the great Parker Palmer says in his classic book The Courage to Teach, “We must enter, not evade, the tangle of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but to serve our students well. . . Good teaching requires self-knowledge: it is a secret hidden in plain sight.” In explaining how the mind works, Pinker makes a similar claim: “Our mental life is a noisy parliament of competing factions. In dealing with others, we assume they are as complicated as we are, and we guess what they are guessing we are guessing they are guessing.”
Parker’s and Pinker’s insights may lead to a messier equation, but it’s how the mind works, and it’s what good teaching requires. So why not make 2011 a year when we start to acknowledge both sides of this coin? When it comes to understanding the human brain, we must study both intelligence and consciousness. And when it comes to producing a world-class profession of teachers, we must help individuals acquire both top-flight technique and a deep understanding of the self that teaches.
Absent both, we are left with nothing more than science fiction.