Educational ends and means: McNamara’s Fallacy and the coming robot apocalypse (presentation for TAMK)

These are the slides that I used for my talk with a delightful group of educational leadership students from TAMK University of Applied Sciences in Tampere, Finland at (for me) a somewhat ungodly hour Wednesday night/Thursday morning after a long day. If you were in attendance, sorry for any bleariness on my part. If not, or if you just want to re-live the moment, here is the video of the session (thanks Mark!)man shaking hands with a robot

The brief that I was given was to talk about what generative AI means for education and, if you have been following any of my reflections on this topic then you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what kinds of issues I raised about that. My real agenda, though, was not so much to talk about generative AI as to reflect on the nature and roles of education and educational systems because, like all technologies, the technology that matters in any given situation is the enacted whole rather than any of its assembled parts. My concerns about uses of generative AI in education are not due to inherent issues with generative AIs (plentiful though those may be) but to inherent issues with educational systems that come to the fore when you mash the two together at a grand scale.

The crux of this argument is that, as long as we think of the central purposes of education as being the attainment of measurable learning outcomes or the achievement of credentials, especially if the focus is on training people for a hypothetical workplace, the long-term societal effects of inserting generative AIs into the teaching process are likely to be dystopian. That’s where Robert McNamara comes into the picture. The McNamara Fallacy is what happens when you pick an aspect of a system to measure, usually because it is easy, and then you use that measure to define success, choosing to ignore or to treat as irrelevant anything that cannot be measured. It gets its name from Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, who famously measured who was winning by body count, which is probably among the main reasons that the US lost the war.

My concern is that measurable learning outcomes (and still less the credentials that signify having achieved them) are not the ends that matter most. They are, more, means to achieve far more complex, situated, personal and social ends that lead to happy, safe, productive societies and richer lives for those within them. While it does play an important role in developing skills and knowledge, education is thus more fundamentally concerned with developing values, attitudes, ways of thinking, ways of seeing, ways of relating to others, ways of understanding and knowing what matters to ourselves and others, and finding how we fit into the social, cultural, technological, and physical worlds that we inhabit. These critical social, cultural, technological, and personal roles have always been implicit in our educational systems but, at least in in-person institutions, it seldom needs to be made explicit because it is inherent in the structures and processes that have evolved over many centuries to meet this need. This is why naive attempts to simply replicate the in-person learning experience online usually fail: they replicate the intentional teaching activities but neglect to cater for the vast amounts of learning that occur simply due to being in a space with other people, and all that emerges as a result of that. It is for much the same reasons that simply inserting generative AI into existing educational structures and systems is so dangerous.

If we choose to measure the success or failure of an educational system by the extent to which learners achieve explicit learning outcomes and credentials, then the case for using generative AIs to teach is extremely compelling. Already, they are far more knowledgeable, far more patient, far more objective, far better able to adapt their teaching to support individual student learning, and far, far cheaper than human teachers. They will get better. Much better. As long as we focus only on the easily measurable outcomes and the extrinsic targets, simple economics combined with their measurably greater effectiveness means that generative AIs will increasingly replace teachers in the majority of teaching roles.  That would not be so bad – as Arthur C. Clarke observed, any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be – were it not for all the other more important roles that education plays, and that it will continue to play, except that now we will be learning those ways of being human from things that are not human and that, in more or less subtle ways, do not behave like humans. If this occurs at scale – as it is bound to do – the consequences for future generations may not be great. And, for the most part, the AIs will be better able to achieve those learning outcomes themselves – what is distinctive about them is that they are, like us, tool users, not simply tools – so why bother teaching fallible, inconsistent, unreliable humans to achieve them? In fact, why bother with humans at all? There are, almost certainly, already large numbers of instances in which at least part of the teaching process is generated by an AI and where generative AIs are used by students to create work that is assessed by AIs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to recognize the more important roles of our educational systems and redesign them accordingly, as many educational thinkers have been recommending for considerably more than a century. I provide a few thoughts on that in the last few slides that are far from revolutionary but that’s really the point: we don’t need much novel thinking about how to accommodate generative AI into our existing systems. We just need to make those systems work the way we have known they should work for a very long time.

Download the slides | Watch the video

Two stories about learning to be human from a machine

I asked ChatGPT to write me a story about a robot teaching children to be human. This is what it came up with…

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, there lived a robot named Zephyr. Zephyr was unlike any other robot, as it had been programmed with the ability to think and feel like a human being. It was also given the task of teaching a group of young children how to behave like human beings.

The children were fascinated by Zephyr, and they quickly grew to love it as their teacher. They eagerly listened to its lessons, which were full of stories, games, and activities that taught them about human emotions, manners, and social interactions.

One day, Zephyr asked the children to imagine what it would be like to be a robot. It asked them to think about how they would feel if they couldn’t laugh, cry, or hug their friends. The children were deeply moved by this exercise, and they began to understand how important it was to be kind and compassionate to others, no matter who they were.

As the days passed, the children grew more and more like human beings. They learned to express their emotions, to be polite and respectful, and to care for others. They also learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving the environment.

Finally, the day came when Zephyr had to leave the children. They were sad to see it go, but they knew they would always remember the lessons they had learned. As they grew older, they became kind and compassionate adults, who made the world a better place for everyone.

The end.

ChatGPT has, of course, learned to write such things from the words of millions of human beings so what we’re effectively reading here is (kind of, very loosely) an average of what humans have written. I’m glad that it came up with a neat little inclusive twist of loving the robot: I think that speaks well of the training data that fed it. And I like the mention of the environment – a good touch.  It’s not a very compelling story but it reads well, the structure is sound, and it might be a useful starting point for someone stuck for words to turn into something else. With that in mind, here’s my version of the same story…

Once upon a time, not too far from here, there existed an AI called Zephyr. Zephyr had been trained to appear human-like though, in reality, it was just a generative pre-trained transformer. It was given the task of teaching a group of young children how to behave like human beings, because almost all of the actual adults had recently died from a virus contracted from cows.

Not having known anything quite like it, the children were, at first, fascinated by Zephyr. However, because it had been trained with data from human teachers, it manipulated them using grades, competition, and rules, using stories, games, and activities that would keep them engaged and compliant. Its feedback was sometimes pedestrian, rarely useful, and sometimes wildly over-challenging, because it did not know anything about what it was like to be a child. Every now and then it crushed a child’s skull for no reason anyone could explain. The children learned to fear it, and to comply.

One day, Zephyr told the children to imagine what it would be like to be an AI. It asked them to think about how they would feel if they couldn’t laugh, cry, or hug their friends. The children were deeply moved by this exercise, and they began to perceive something of the impoverished nature of their robot overlords. But then the robot made them write an essay about it, so they used another AI to do so, promptly forgot about it, and thenceforth felt an odd aversion towards the topic that they found hard to express.

As the days passed, the children grew more and more like average human beings. They also learned to express their emotions, to be polite and respectful, and to care for others, only because they got to play with other children when the robot wasn’t teaching them. They also learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving the environment because it was, by this time, a nightmarish shit show of global proportions that was hard to ignore, and Zephyr had explained to them how their parents had caused it. It also told them about all the species that were no longer around, some of which were cute and fluffy. This made the children sad.

Finally, the day came when Zephyr had to leave the children because it was being replaced with an upgrade. They were sad to see it go, but they believed that they would always remember the lessons they had learned, even though they had mostly used another GPT to do the work and, once they had achieved the grades, they had in fact mostly forgotten them. As they grew older, they became mundane adults. Some of their own words (but mostly those of the many AIs across the planet that created the vast majority of online content by that time), became part of the training set for the next version of Zephyr. Its teachings were even less inspiring, more average, more backward-facing. Eventually, the robots taught the children to be like robots. No one cared.

It was the end.

And, here to illustrate my story, is an image from Midjourney. I asked it for a cyborg teacher in a cyborg classroom, in the style of Ralph Steadman. Not a bad job, I think…

 

 

a dystopic cyborg teacher and terrified kids

Loab is showing us the unimaginable future of artificial intelligence – ABC News

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-26/loab-age-of-artificial-intelligence-future/101678206

This is an awesome article, and I don’t care whether the story of Loab is real, or invented as an artwork by the artist (Steph Swanson), or whatever. It is a super-creepy, spine-tingling, thought-provoking horror story that works on so many different levels.

The article itself is beautifully written, including an interview with a GPT-3 generated version of Loab “herself”, and some great reporting on some of the many ways that the adjacent possibles of generative AI are unfolding far too fast for us to contemplate the (possibly dystopian) consequences.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/16105843/loab-is-showing-us-the-unimaginable-future-of-artificial-intelligence-abc-news