Learning And Education

In past ages, warriors and hunters were considered the heroes in society.  In later ages it was the gods, the kings, and the priests.  Today, intellectuals and skilled artisans are the ones held in the highest esteem.  We may consider these things timeless, but I don’t believe that’s the case.  The current virtues of intelligence and skilled work in some trade will have soon run its course as well.  What comes next, I’m not sure.

First let’s look at intelligence and learning.  In the world today, in order to learn and become intelligent, you are required to read lots and lots of books, sit through long and oftentimes boring lectures, and absorb as much information as you can about your trade and your area of expertise.  The more knowledgeable you are, and the better you are at what you do, the more money you’re worth (generally speaking anyway).  Our entire society is based on this premise.  Our economic theories about how we interrelate with one another depend upon the division of labor and exchange of goods, services, and knowledge.

Now I want all of you to take a look at the super-computer IBM has constructed named Watson.  Scientists are learning a great deal about the information processing mechanisms of our brains, and they’re now building computers which can think a lot like a human can.  So what happens when you build a computer which can read books, organize all their contents, and search a database of all human knowledge in the blink of an eye?  Well, you get Watson.  At least, that’s what they’re moving toward.

The other players playing against Watson in this video are former Jeopardy champions.  The only reason they stand a chance against this thing is because Watson takes a short moment to interpret the question, process its massive database of information, and then sort out its answer.  Once computers speed up, humans will be blown out of the water.

Throughout my studies at Missouri S&T, besides my math and physics courses, all the other tests in my other classes have been basically regurgitation of memorized information.  If I had Watson next to my side, or even Google, there would’ve been no point in even studying for them. I have a 4.0 GPA, and I sometimes have to “study” pretty hard for exams.  Is it because the material is difficult?  No.  Definitely not.  My process for studying for exams goes something like this.  I first read the chapters and identify the important information — or if the professor gives an outline of what’s on the exam, then I focus on that material.  Then I sort out that information  and condense it down to a few pages of notes.  I then have to read over those few pages, over and over and over, until I know that my brain can regurgitate the information on command.  That’s the most painful part of the process — mindlessly going over the information, over and over and over, until it “sticks”.  I then take the exam, get my A, and then within a few months forget 80% of it.  That’s because basically all I had done is cram information into my short-term memory yet the brain “deletes” information it doesn’t use frequently on a day to day basis.  Basically, if water is knowledge, and a bucket is our brain (the container), we have a hole at the bottom of our bucket, and knowledge is constantly leaking out. It’s a lot like exercise.  If you don’t use your muscles they shrivel up.

I hate that about life and living in this human body.  I study so many books and then forget what I learn.  I’ve gone to the gym and worked out, bulking up and chiseling my body to look and feel great.  Then I grow tired of mindlessly lifting weights up and down, wasting energy and time, so I quit going.  Then I get out of shape.  I try to find ways to make exercise less mundane and tedious but I’ve never been successful.  Lately I’ve been walking and or jogging to stay in shape.  I don’t think much of the human body we live in.  As much as I’m thankful to be alive, at the same time, I can’t always suppress my thoughts that the human body is a poorly constructed piece of garbage.  It’s always getting sick, forgetting most everything it learns, wants to eat everything that’s unhealthy for it, doesn’t enjoy eating the food that’s good for it, sweats and stinks, constantly needs cleaned and bathed, its teeth will rot out if you don’t brush them, you have to rinse your mouth out with nasty mouth wash or your gums will wither away and your teeth fall out, its arteries get plugged, its muscles wither away, it generates headaches and pains, is easily injured, gets tired, and you all know the rest.  We’ve all been human beings for a while now.

Though I won’t probably see it, I hope for the day when Watson is condensed into a tiny microchip which is implanted into our brains at birth.  How many hours would that save?  Countless.  School and “studying” for a exams will be a thing of the past.  Nobody will ever fall victim to feeling stupid for not knowing their history, or other forms of knowledge.   There will be no worries about using improper grammar, or getting your facts wrong.  It simply won’t be an issue.  In fact, within a few hundred years, I don’t think anyone will worry over, or even value these things.  The fact that everyone knows everything that humans know will be a fact of their lives, and they’ll focus on other things.

I don’t think any of us will learn trades or information by “practice” and toil.  We’ll simply download the information into our onboard “Watson” embedded in our brains, which will then relay signals to our motor systems, and we’ll perform any task required of us.  We’ll all know how to fly airplanes, program computers, design circuits, perform complex mathematical operations, play any instrument, and so on — and best of all, we won’t forget any of it!  Basically everything we take pride in now, and use to compare ourselves one with another, will all be gone.

As for all the tedious work which we’ll know how to do, but don’t want to, we’ll have our robots do them for us.  One hundred years from now, robots like Asimo will be able to fluently talk with you, think on their own, perform mundane, difficult, and dangerous jobs for you, and so on.   I want to include a video of Asimo here, but you’ll have to bear with it a bit.  It’s a recording from a Disneyland exhibit, which is a little cheesy, but it does give an idea about what robots will be doing for us in the future.  I feel sorry for the guy who has to give that same presentation over and over and over.  I couldn’t handle that.

The reason you see Asimo pausing all the time is that his computer processors aren’t fast enough to deal with everything.  Asimo has to analyze what its seeing, plot out a route, and then calculate its movements.  It takes a lot of processing power, and it takes it a few seconds to perform.  The problem is the same thing Watson faces.  None of that will be a problem some 20~30 years from now.

The feeling of pride in a job well done, or in being educated, is based on survival instincts which will no longer be necessary to future generations.  For example, we feel inferior when we can’t do a job as well as somebody else.  This is to motivate us to try harder.   Our brain also rewards us for doing things better, and more efficiently than others.  If we can do a complex task, with few errors, in very little time, it is better for our survival, so we’re rewarded for doing so.  We are also constantly watching how well others do these same things, and we compare ourselves during the process.   It’s not random that sports stars are so often looked up to.  In the world where we evolved, skillfully throwing things, tackling another person, and so on, were important for survival.  Nowadays, that sort of thing is almost trivial.  Taking pride in your education has similar sorts of instinctual roots which will serve no purpose in our distant future.  There will be no reason for that system to continue on.  We’ll share all knowledge and skills, and all be good at everything, and know everything.  We’ll eventually alter our brains and remove those feelings of inferiority and superiority from our constitution.  Their purposes will be outlived and over.

How will we define ourselves and our individuality at that point?  I don’t think we’ll care.  That’s another thing we’ll be outgrowing during this process – the idea that we’re individuals, separate from one another, and can exist apart from one another in the upcoming technological world.

I’ve been reflecting on this the past few months.  I think the emphasis is going to move toward creativity, sharing what we create, and a reverence for the consciousness inside of us.  The world of “possession” and control is based around the idea of scarcity.  The more abundant our resources become, and the more energy we can control, the less it will matter that we control things.  Your survival and happiness will not depend on how much you can control.  As physicists like Stephen Hawking are realizing, the underlying laws of physics point toward a sort of system which allows nearly infinite creation and possibilities.  As we master that process more and more, and learn to control the matter and energy around us more and more , I’m guessing that things will move toward how creative you can be.

For example, we’ll have robots which can build any sort of structure and building we can think up.  What buildings will they build for us?  I’m sure there will be contests where brilliant creative people get together and design amazing things.  Right now, we’re living in an age where people like me are valued the most — analytical, systems type minds, which are good with numbers, programming computers, engineering, and so on.  When I say “valued the most”, I mean we find it the easiest to earn money and find jobs.  Once computers and robots can program themselves, and think for themselves, my era will be over.  Artists and creative people, I think, will be what the world needs and desires next.

I wonder if in a far distant future, we’ll learn what consciousness is and how the brain generates it.  At that point, I speculate that we’ll start to discard our physical existence entirely and be more of an “energy-like” existence.  We’ll be able to materialize ourselves into different bodies and warp from place to play just by thinking where we want to be.  But such a world is too far removed from anything I understand.  The idea of consciousness without a physical body may not even possible.  But, I say this because I think the universe is grand, and things like this are probably possible.  The dog eat dog world of toil and struggle which we see around us isn’t what reality has to be.  We’re rapidly throwing off those chains and moving toward this amazing world up ahead.  It’s too bad I’ll be dead before most of the truly amazing things happen.  But, once I die, I don’t think that’s the end of my conscious experiences — it’s just the end of this physical “space suit” which I’m currently experiencing life through right now.  The fact that our generation is laying the groundwork for such a wonderful future makes me happy inside.

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3 Responses to Learning And Education

  1. Steve says:

    Very provocative post, Jason. I wonder how we will and should shape our evolution and how life will be when we do. I also wonder what will happen when machines can do EVERYTHING, including the creative tasks to which you allude, better than we can. What jobs will be left for us to do, and how will we earn our livelihood, or will we even need to at that point?

    You wrote: “As we master that process more and more, and learn to control the matter and energy around us more and more , I’m guessing that things will move toward how creative you can be.” This reminded me of the fictional Krell in the sci-fi movie classic “Forbidden Planet.” They developed a fantastic technology enabling them to instantly create virtually anything they could conceive, and they ended up destroying themselves with monstrous forces summoned by their unconscious Ids.

    One wonders if we will ever be able to prevent our own unconscious primitive and violent urges and impulses from warping amazingly powerful technologies into engines of self-destruction, like we may still do with such already existing technologies as nuclear and biological weaponry.

    Frankly, I’m not sanguine about our prospects.

  2. Steve says:

    As a brief follow-up to my previous comment, your mention of people downloading information and skills into their brains reminds me of the android Commander Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” For instance, he could perform a violin concert in which he perfectly emulated the styles of the greatest violin masters throughout history after programming himself with this capability.

    I, for one, would love to be able to program myself with Steven Seagal’s aikido skills and execute them on the mat. But how enjoyable would this capability be if everyone with whom I performed these skills were at the same level of skill and as masterful at neutralizing these skills as they were at executing them?

  3. I recently just watched Forbidden Planet. What a great movie. Thanks for mentioning it. It’s unfortunate that if we were given the power to manifest our desires, we’d probably end up annihilating ourselves and everyone around us. That’s a sad thought. It’s almost as if we’re condemned to suffer in this world. Unless we were to somehow use our technology to fundamentally change our inner nature, the baggage we carry from our evolutionary past will always be there to drag us down. It’s often said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but I think that film illustrates a deeper truth – what one does when given power shows what’s really inside of them. It also illustrates that we often live in a self-delusion, thinking we’re better than we really are.

    As for everyone being skilled in everything, you’re probably right. It’s likely that it wouldn’t add as much to our happiness as one might initially think. Its benefits would be primarily related to removing our helplessness in the face of nature, but as for our relations with our fellow men, absent a change in our inner natures, our interrelationships with others probably wouldn’t change all that much. The bar would simply be raised to higher standards. We would all try to prove our worth in different ways, guided by primitive urges from our savage past. Reminds me of the Biblical proverb, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (Ecc: 7:13).

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