I was catching up with reading my weekend papers and came across the Observer Tech Monthly profile of Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind. I have never met Demis, but the Observer piece echoes the descriptions I have been given by those who do know him. He is incredibly bright and also extremely modest: a nice ‘ordinary’ North London guy. I feel comforted that someone like this is at the forefront of our efforts to extend the boundaries of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the achievements of DeepMind are certainly impressive. However I am less convinced about the real potential of Artificial General Intelligence or AGI, especially when it comes to its application to education.
I can buy into the vision of a world where smart people work with smart machines to solve wicked problems, such as cancer. And I can see that there is indeed too much information for many of us humans to process, so some artificially intelligent help would be great. I like the idea that AGI will “automatically convert unstructured information into actionable knowledge…. to provide a meta-solution for any problem” But that’s where it falls down for me, I can’t believe that the structured knowledge will be applicable to any problem.
The reason I hold this view is twofold. Firstly, much of the knowledge that helps us negotiate our way through the world is highly contextualized. There is significant evidence that a learner’s context impacts significantly upon their learning process and that in essence each individual person has his or her own individualized learning context. Secondly, teaching and learning in the real world provides extremely messy data. It’s this very messiness in teaching and learning settings that is crucially important. Partly because one never knows if what appears to be mess is actually important for learning. For example, a disagreement between two children will probably upset at least one of them and that in turn will impact on their learning. I would need to see some clear examples of contextualized AGI (is that a contradiction in terms?) and its propensity for messy real world learning settings to be convinced that AGI for education is a way forward.
It’s not just DeepMind whose remarkable systems are not to my mind suitable to take over education. I was on a panel with Jose Ferreira CEO of Knewton last month and it became clear that Jose believes that Knewton is smart enough to play the role of a teacher. It certainly is impressive technology. However, Knewton relies upon ‘clean’ data and that is not what classrooms are like. To my mind the most likely outcome for AI within Education is not for AGI, but for AI components to provide teachers with a selection of smart tools that teachers can use with learners as and when they think it appropriate. It really is the smart combination of Human and Machine intelligence that will win the day.