Education, Technology

Machine Learning

If we’re going to bow to our robot overlords, let’s at least understand them. 

Earlier this week an article in Quartz from a Gallup executive director about recent polls indicated that while a vast majority of Americans support computer science courses in schools, only a quarter of them actually offer any. It’s often said that there is a “shortage” of computer scientists and engineers in this country–which, aside from immigration restrictions preventing more foreign-born technically skilled workers from entering, is not the most accurate description–so this is obviously not helping. It’s a sad state of affairs to see the public education system adapt to the modern world; it seems, especially in the face of budget cuts, the only answer is to cut arts education and focus almost entirely on standardized testing.Unfortunately, though it will help, making math and logical thinking a larger part of the curriculum will not substitute for learning about computers and programming and more broadly, dealing with machines. And though calculus is useful–there is evidence that learning math at higher levels solidifies our understanding of more basic, useful math–writing more things on paper (or typing them) is not going to help. The problem is the average homo sapien doesn’t know how to deal with a machine. And that has consequences.

Ken Jennings losing to Watson the supercomputer in Jeopardy!. I think he recognizes the problem.

It’s not even a question of the relevance of computers. It’s that machines–most often but not always computers–are ubiquitous in our lives, in fact, I’ve communicated this message over one right now, with keys that came about on the modern typewriter, through wires first developed with the discovery of electricity, using an apparatus that has its roots in the industrial revolution’s mechanical looms. From the steam engine to the server, it has always been about machines. You drive a car. You take the elevator. You take a shower. Your Macbook breaks. And the problem is, you may not have the faintest idea of how any of them work. And you might not have the tools to even try to understand. It’s the sort of thing that traditionally dads teach their sons. But maybe your dad didn’t teach you that. Or maybe you’re one of those other people, women.

The Babbage difference engine, a predecessor of the modern computer. To power our modern world, this poor woman has to crank that thing all day.

Some people–those often destined to be engineers–tinker with things and get to understanding on their own. That’s the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old who earlier this week was arrested this week for bringing to school a homemade clock that resembled a bomb. Ahmed says he was trying to impress his engineering teacher, to “show what I could do.” That alone, without the arrest, is extraordinary–someone going into school trying to impress a teacher with their work, going above and beyond, applying what they’ve learned to do something useful. Of course, not only did his fellow high schoolers probably think him weird, but he was thrown into handcuffs. In addition to a show of compassion and a strike against discrimination, characters like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg used the opportunity to encourage him and others like him. Both are in need of technically skilled labor–one for his math-deficient country and one for his behemoth social media company. They sent the right signal–we should be encouraging this behavior, not shutting it down out of paranoia. Sure, Tesla may have been viewed as weird, but I don’t recall anything about him getting arrested for innovating.

Not only should we encourage this, but we should incorporate it into the curriculum. Wouldn’t it be nice if, with a car breaking down on the side of the road, more people had an idea what was going on? (Your mechanic probably wouldn’t be happy.) Or when your computer “isn’t working,” you could tell at least that it was the power cable or a virus or because you just downloaded too many Michael Bay movies? (The answer is, of course, that computers justifiably react poorly to Michael Bay.) There needs to be more hands-on work in schools, at a minimum, and not just in elementary school. And of course, there will always be the need for specialists. But there is also the need for broad literacy. After all, you’re looking at this thing all day.

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