Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Ways Of Learning?

Kia ora tātou – Hello Everyonea fractal
Ever thought about a new way of learning? Tony Karrer did.

I applauded his innovation for contemplating its possible existence. It has been discussed a lot in the blogosphere recently, some of it spawned by ideas associated with so-called digital-natives.

Though I don’t really ascribe to the digital-native idea, and I’m also sceptical about there being ‘new ways of learning’, I have to admit to believing that there are probably many billions of ways of learning, if not an infinite number. If this is coming over as a contradiction, read on.

Thinking and learning are intertwined. While I’m not contemplating a discussion on the chicken-and-egg nature of their relationship, it’s likely that in any new-born child the thinking is there, if only in a primal form, before the learning begins. Studies show that there are numerous developmental stages wherein thinking skills develop in the young child as it grows.

Higher thinking skills

We contemplate the higher thinking skills that children at school may develop. Presumably these skills have to be learnt too. So you might understand why I mentioned about the chicken-and-egginess of thinking and learning.

Beyond a certain elementary stage of learning, it becomes difficult to say whether the learning progresses because of development of thinking skill, or the thinking develops because of learning.

It's unique

There are several schools of thought that believe human thinking, despite all its multiple facets, is quite unique. For instance, bees think differently than humans. It has been shown that bees exhibit a consciousness, and that validates the idea that they also think. Regardless of their different plane of thinking, they have organisational skills which in many ways appear to be superior to humans.

A characteristic of human thinking is its diversity. While every human mind has its own opinion in some form, a feature of the humanness of the thinking behind that opinion is that it is likely to be different from others who hold an opinion on the same topic or idea.

However small the variation is between one opinion and that of others of the group, the fact that there are differences is a manifestation of that humanness. No two human minds think exactly alike - on any topic.

It takes a
willingness to comply and a considerable amount of training for any significant number of humans to enter into community work with the dedication and single-mindedness exhibited by a colony of bees. Humans just don’t think that way. Some might say that they are too diverse in their thinking to be like bees. Here lies my point. Humans think like humans. Bees think like bees.

I posit here that no matter how much we learn about bees, we will never be able understand how bees think, let alone be able to think like a bee, no more than a bee could ever think like a human mind. The same could be said about human thinking in relation to that in other animals.

Take me to your leader

What sort of thinking does an alien possess? Just imagine an alien watching two humans in conversation. Let’s assume that the alien is input-fed by some mysterious and unlikely contraption that transmits understanding about the conversation with all the relevant and important features being conveyed.

A human witnessing the same conversation might understand the significance of dress code and how it influences the way one person might view the other. Or it might be accent, or culture, or just simply difference of opinion and background. All of these may be subliminally registered by a human observer because that observer thinks like a human.

The human observer knows what a raised voice means or may even be familiar with a nuance in cultural dialogue. What I’m suggesting is that the alien would not/could not possibly understand the significance of these hidden codes even if they are observable. To the alien they would make no perceptible contribution to the discourse between the two conversationalists. To the human observer, they could convey some of the most significant messages. Humans think like humans. Aliens think like aliens.

Our Sci-fi aliens

The likelihood is that the alien would not be able to comprehend the significance of much of the conversation never mind the subliminal messages. The frame of reference of an alien in understanding everyday human things, ideas and concepts, let alone cultural idiosyncrasies, would be too far removed from the environment familiar to humans here on earth.

Our conception of aliens tends to be groomed by science fiction, and how that depicts how aliens will appear. Did aliens write the Sci-fi? No. The vision transferred to us from Sci-fi is how another human thinks aliens might appear and how they might think. I posit we will find that aliens, when they arrive, will not think like humans at all.

Artificial intelligence and the rest

We are on the brink of discovering what true artificial intelligence (AI) can offer. I wonder at how we will regard the AI when it is developed to the stage when we can truly and appropriately compare it with human intelligence, and that time is close. It’s not so strange that the intelligence of computer minds has, in the past, been judged by comparison with what is expected in response from a human mind, the most highly developed intelligence that we know. What else could we use as a comparative when observing intelligence? This situation is both inevitable and unfortunate.

I’ve no doubt that there are an infinite number of ways of thinking that are different than human ways. If they were understood, they would certainly be ‘new ways of thinking’. But it is also just as certain that they will be ways of thinking that we can neither conceive of nor understand. The likelihood of human-made AI being significantly different from our own is small. Can it also be said that learning by artificial intelligence is unlikely to be significantly different from what we know of learning in humans?

Haere rā – Farewell

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