Friday, February 18, 2011

Elementary my dear Watson

I recently watched with great interest the three day special Jeopardy contest which tested two past winners against IBM's computer called Watson. IBM has certainly made great strides with artificial intelligence. It was fascinating to see how a super computer responded to the types of questions/clues that are usually posed on Jeopardy. Even with a few odd answers, Watson won the three day competition easily.
Watson, a high-speed network of servers occupies a large room and refrigeration units that are needed to keep the cpu's from overheating. At the heart of this super computer is not just an encyclopedic knowledge database, but the capacity to in essence reason (by the use of algorithms) and use available data, comparisons, and elimination to a come up with a logical answer.

Certainly Watson has implications in many areas including medical, business, and industry. However, what captured my interest the most was how computers like Watson might be utilized in enhancing learning. Now one might surmise that if; A.) Computers can mimic human intelligence and surpass the amount of knowledge and speed answers can be obtained, and B.) The size of this computer could occupy the physical space of current handheld/mobile devices, we could just use it like a Super-Google to answer questions when we need them. This would be nice, but I think that if a computer of this capacity could be developed it may be able to change the face of education as we know finally make the old educational factory model obsolete. Imagine being able to utilize current research in teaching and learning to create and modify curriculum to maintain best-practices from pre-k through post-graduate learning, and in face-to-face, blended and online learning venues.

In my imagination I could see it taking the content and customizing it to meet individual learners needs and styles of learning. Right now in K-12 one teacher works with 20-30 students of varying capabilities. In higher education we fill large auditoriums with a hundred students of different learning abilities and styles. Just how, realistically speaking, can one educator meet each and every one of these student's learning needs? Certainly students are tested and evaluated along the way, some outliers are put into special groups or offered enrichment opportunities early on and others winnowed as they go through the system. But, is this the best we can do without pushing the limits of current staff and available budgets?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we didn't have to put labels on individuals, placing them in boxes (gifted to learning challenges), with the prospect of limiting these learner's potential? With the use of artificial intelligence we could instead focus on optimizing students learning potential.

Intelligence is a scale from low to high, and each of us fits somewhere on that scale. Personally I think everyone has areas in which they are gifted. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to individualize and enhance each learner's knowledge construction, without creating a more labor intensive process for educators? This could free these subject matter experts to spend more time doing what they were educated to do and mentor and encourage students. If educators had adequate tools at their disposal to meet individual learning needs, and engage and encourage a variety of learners, it would facilitate the transition from the factory model we have fenced ourselves into for the last 50 years or so to a newer and better individualized system. Grouping students by age, grade and abilities could all but disappear, replaced by an integrated adaptable system. Tailored learning would allow each one of us no matter our circumstances to take advantage of the potential we are given at birth. However great this individualized model is, unfortunately factors such as social, cultural, and family & educator support would still be variables which could affect learning outcomes.

I remember as i was growing up technology and science promised us many things. While I am still waiting for my flying car and personal robot, the science that we thought would become everyday life by the 60's is just now advancing towards ubiquitous use. Computers are becoming smaller, more portable/usable and we're more connected everywhere we go. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made great strides in the last 10 years. This trend will continue as we dream and work towards better understanding how the brain functions and what it means to be aware of our surroundings and be human. Watson is the result of many years of work not only at IBM, but at universities and research centers. Here's hoping that society can and will take full advantage of current and new technologies, to not only make our lives easier, but to help all individuals meet their natural potential.