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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Truth and The Internet: critical thinking vs editing

In the old days it was easy to find the truth. Truth was taught in every religious institution. Typically one was sent there as a child and one learned the truth. Over time, truth was to be found in school, later in books, still later on television, and today, truth is to be found on the internet.

Of course there is a problem with this conception of truth. Religions tend to get people when they are young and instill in them truth they may never question. Schools do the same. The truths given out by schools aren’t typically very harmful. Memorizing the quadratic formula doesn’t actually harm anyone. Believing Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in U.S. History, doesn’t do much harm either.

When I was on the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I learned that that board  “knew the truth.” They worked hard to ensure that their volume of books held the truth, which I think it probably did more or less. They also wanted to have just the right amount of truth. For example, they had no interest in say, doubling the size of information contained within the set of books. You might have thought this was an economic issue, but it really wasn’t. The editors had a sense that literature say, was more important than say computer science, and space was allotted accordingly.

What I learned from being on that board was that the board members performed a real service: vetting out a great deal of unimportant (in their minds) stuff also made sure what was in those volumes was correct (at least as far as they could tell.)

I told the Britannica people that they would be gone soon enough, and of course they now are. What I envisioned in their place has never happened however. I would like to see a board of editors for the internet.

Now I know this is a heresy of some sort. The freedom to say whatever you want on the internet is sacrosanct. No one is crying out to stop people from posting misinformation.

But, and this is an important but, as long as the schools don’t change, the internet may have to. As long as we teach young people to memorize and pass multiple choice tests, and fail to teach them how to know if what they are being told is true, then we will have trouble. 

One of two things has to happen. Either people need to be taught to reason critically, to ask hard questions, to be able to discern if what they have just heard on TV or read on the internet is true, or we had better fix the internet.

How to fix it, is, of course, the question.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Human memory, conversation with computers, and just in time knowledge (and a short demo)

In the end, all our problems in the schools and in education in general, come down to this false belief: “knowledge is important, so we need to tell students lots of stuff.”

Of course, knowledge is important, it is the kind of knowledge that is at issue. It is also the means of acquiring knowledge that is at issue.

Lecturing, reading, memorizing, all that school stuff isn’t really all that natural or all that comfortable for people, and it isn’t how we naturally learn.  

We learn naturally when we try to find something out for ourselves because we are interested in something, or because there is something we are trying to accomplish and we need help. When we want to know how to get somewhere, or how to do something, we ask. Now, typically this has meant asking a person, but more often these days there are ways to ask a computer the same things. And although computers are very bad at conversation, it is nevertheless true that conversation is at the core of how we learn.

We express ideas; others challenges those ideas; we try something; someone makes a suggestion about how we can do it better. We have a problem and we ask for advice. Or we try to make our own thoughts more coherent by trying to express them clearly and dealing with other people’s reactions to whatever we have said.

Most of my professional life has been devoted to studying how human conversation actually works. I have always dreamed that computers would become a part of that conversation and have worked over the years to make that happen. Unfortunately, what passes these days for conversation with a computer is pretty one sided. One reason for that is that computers don’t have that much to say. You might ask, but good luck with finding a reasonable answer on line. The web is full of many interesting things, but finding just the right person who knows the answer to your question and is ready to talk with you about it, is far from reality.

Well, not for long.

Yesterday, my company, Socratic Arts, posted this:

Go there and you will see a short demo of a system that has 1000 video clips of some of the best doctors we have in the U.S. talking about what they know. The clips are short, and the system we use to organize them is based on the book Dynamic Memory (which I wrote in 1981.) Human memory is self organizing. Getting a computer to organize what it knows and re-organize what it knows according to principles of abstract indexing is something we have been working on for years, and it is anything but simple.  

We haven’t been able to show what we have built very easily before, because the clients who sponsor or have sponsored this work usually want their knowledge to be kept private. But this medical project is meant for the general public. It is far from finished. But I thought people should start thinking about what real knowledge looks like: on a computer, in the human mind, and as part of a conversational system that enables knowledge to be delivered just in time (and not ten years before you might need it). 

So have a look.

(This is just an early version of this. A very different one will be available in a month or so. We will keep you posted.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

$40,000 per year to attend a high school that will allow you to enter your "top choice university"?

I noticed a full page ad in the New York Times on Sunday. It was an announcement from Leman Manhattan Prep School that their newly graduated first class of “critical thinkers” will “enter their top choice universities.”

There was then a list of the top choice universities their graduates were going to attend. There are about 70 of them. They include:

Allegheny College
American University
Binghamton University
Bloomfield College
Boston University
University of Buffalo
Clark University
Connecticut College
University of Connecticut
SUNY Cortland
Curry College
Dickinson College
Drew University
Drexel University
Eckerd College
Elmira College
Elon University
Eugene Lang College
Farmingdale State College
Franklin Pierce College
Goucher College
Guilford College
University of Hartford
Hartwick College
High Point University
Howard University

OK. I am tired of typing. This is just A-H.

Students pay about $40,000 a year in tuition to attend Leman which seems to be capable of getting them into colleges that would take people who were paying a lot less tuition (or maybe just went to their regular high school.)

My main point is that getting into the “college that is your top choice” is so important that people have lost all of their senses about the fact that there are 4000 colleges in the United States most of whom are willing to take nearly anyone who applies. (Also going to college may not matter that much any more, but that is another column.)