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Education in the age of cyborgs: the effects of extended intelligence

In October last year Barack Obama guest edited a special issue of Wired magazine entitled Final Frontiers. In it, he discussed the opportunities and challenges new technologies might pose in the future. Artificial intelligence was foremost amongst these.

In an interview with Obama, Joi Ito of MIT referred to extended intelligence, i.e. using machine learning to extend the abilities of human intelligence. This technology is closer to becoming a reality than many people realise. So what are the implications of extended intelligence for education? This question is the subject of part of the latest LKMco podcast, released today.

What is extended intelligence?

Philosopher Duncan Pritchard has done a lot of work on extended intelligence (EI). He’s interested in the development of neuromedia: information processing technologies that are seamlessly integrated with our own cognitive equipment. These could be chips implanted into our brains or virtual reality worlds that we’re ‘plugged into’, the ‘cyborg’ or ‘Minority Report’ routes respectively. Pritchard believes that a key feature of neuromedia is that we can’t tell when we’re using our brains and when we’re using the technology. At that point, we’ve achieved EI.

What might be the implications of EI for education? Pritchard believes that sooner or later we’ll have almost all the factual knowledge in the world available to us, not just at our fingertips, but at the level of neurons inside our brains. EI means there will be no pause while we type out a question in google. Retrieving information from the web will be as instantaneous as retrieving a memory.

This could have a profound impact on a range of skills. In Pritchard’s view, the need to learn how to navigate, memorise, calculate and translate may all become redundant. There’s also huge potential for neuromedia to be misused. Misinformation and propaganda could be disseminated rapidly. How can we prepare young people for this new environment? Do we need to radically rethink how and what we’re teaching our students?

Unfounded fears?

Alarm bells may be ringing in some readers’ heads at this point. However, Daisy Christodoulou and others have argued eloquently that fears about technology are unfounded. She suggests that there are no such things as 21st Century skills, and that what education needs to provide is a broad base of knowledge and that this is crucial in allowing young people to make sense of all the information that’s now available to us.

Pritchard would argue that things are different this time. It’s the seamlessness of EI that will change the education game in his view. He suggests that the facts available on the internet will become part of our extended knowledge. Education should therefore focus on developing what he calls the intellectual virtues, rather than ‘putting in’ what’s already there. These are qualities like conscientiousness, reflectiveness and a love of truth.

Daisy and the cognitive psychologists – a great band name if ever I heard one – would retort that even in an age of neuromedia, students will still need to be taught something. Otherwise, how could they form the necessary links and pathways within the brain to link all those facts together? Pritchard believes this argument misconceives the nature of the knowledge provided by neuromedia. If the facts are bald and out of context, the technology is not seamlessly integrated at all. The scenario he’s referring to is one in which EI is indistinguishable from biological memory.

Unanswered questions

Ultimately, the debate around EI presents us more questions than answers. Will the technology Pritchard describes ever really be possible? Aren’t there some skills that robots will never truly master? And what even is knowledge, anyway?

 

What’s more immediately relevant today is the role technology might play in changing the role of teachers. So does Pritchard believe they will become redundant? No. He believes that the intellectual virtues he describes will always be attributable to the human involved in the educational process, not the technology. Teachers will therefore continue to have a part to play in cultivating these qualities. Likewise, Christodoulou et al would probably argue that a teacher will always be required to pass on their knowledge to students. While the two parties differ on the ends of education, they seem to be in agreement that teachers should be part of the means.

Whether you’re worried about the impact of technology on education or not, the issue of EI highlights the importance of the conversation about what education hopes to achieve, rather than focusing solely on questions of method. It’s the kind of conversation that Obama was willing to have. Whether our current crop of politicians is willing to do the same is another open question.

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