Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Smarter than Human Brains? Which Brains?

Here's a post for all the 1:1 teachers out there.

According to Ray Kurzweil, and posted on the Scientific American website:

Sometime early in this century the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within a quarter of a century, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. By around 2020 a $1,000 computer will at least match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029 the software for intelligence will have been largely mastered, and the average personal computer will be equivalent to 1,000 brains.

The Law of Accelerating Returns shows that by around 2020 a $1,000 personal computer will have the processing power of the human brain—20 million billion calculations per second. The estimates are based on regions of the brain that have already been successfully simulated. By 2055, $1,000 worth of computing will equal the processing power of all human brains on Earth (of course, I may be off by a year or two).

Ultimately, however, we will learn to program intelligence by copying the best intelligent entity we can get our hands on: the human brain itself. We will reverse-engineer the human brain, and fortunately for us it’s not even copyrighted!


This is exactly the kind of thinking that turns folks off about technology. Particularly teachers.

Relax, humans. Robots are not going to take over the world. Well, so long as we continue to write poetry. And make movies. And hum motifs of Debussy every time we stroll through a museum. And get lost in sunsets.

Robots are only going to be smarter than human beings if we limit what we mean by the word 'smart' to a very strict and useless definition. If 'is similar to' becomes the new 'is'.

The technologists who speak in Kurzweil's terms tend to be folks who have not a clue who Howard Gardner is. They are folks for whom 'intelligence' is a universal objectified material item.

They are generally folks who don't understand that grace and intelligence and wit and compassion are really all manifestations of the same thing. They fail to recognize that musical aptitude and musical genius are two different things.

They fail to admit that a synthesized brain -- at least a brain synthesized by folks who fail to recognize that very human and humane and humbling truth -- will never amount to more than a mere tool.

But the human brain is not a mere tool.

It is an organ of memory and emotion. It is the seat of the conception of ideas. It is ridiculous. It thinks of unnecessary things. It falls in love. It values things for reasons it can't explain. And it tries to explain things in ways it ultimately can't understand. In equal doses it sheds out problem solving and entrepreneurship along with brute passion and illogic.

It is both Heathcliff and Lady Macbeth.

In the midst of blog-posts, it even urges bloggers to call technologists funny names. Because it may be true that technologists "claim to have feelings,"; but I for one can't accurately say that they are "very convincing when they tell us so".

So let's recap: just because a person promotes the use of technology doesn't mean that they devalue the humanness of being human. Likewise, anyone who suggests that a robot will be able to "exhibit the full range of human intellect" probably understands little about the "full range of human intellect" -- though the difference between apples and oranges is presumably something even a robot will be able to figure out in a few years.

As for what all this tech argument has to do with the classroom? Remember: a paperless classroom is not a soulless classroom. Rather, the opposite actually. Don't let the musings of technologists persuade your colleagues otherwise. Rather, invite them into your room, let them see what your students are doing, and show them that there ain't a robot in the bunch.

As for: "Equivalent to 1,000 brains"? Now maybe that's something that only a robot would understand, but that's just about the least intelligent thing I have ever heard. I teach a lot of brains everyday and not one of them looks the same to me. But maybe I'm just a human who uses technology, not a technologist who uses humanity.

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