Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Silicon Soul

I recently had the privilege of hosting our school's philosophy club.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Yeah, we have a philosophy club, and I am geeked up enough to think that is cool.  Our large, public high school, some years the largest in Indiana, offers classes called Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge, a required class for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.  Having taught both of them, I have come to think of them as classes in applied epistemology, a serious look at how we know what we know in particular subjects.  For my money, that in itself is fantastic.  I have seen students who were not academically inclined shine in these courses, and students who were already at the top of the academic heap explore things they never would have considered in courses where they knew what it took to get an A before enrolling.

For years my good friend and colleague, Jeannie McNew, who taught English as well as CT and TOK, sponsored the philosophy club.  When she retired, we thought that was the end of the club, but true to her nature, the nature of a genuine teacher, she volunteered to come back once a week to supervise the club.  When she had to miss a week, Jeannie asked me to cover it for her.

To be fair, the fault was mine.  I should have known better.  I thought, "Oh, I'll get some grading done while the philosophy students talk among themselves."  What, was I stupid?  I mean, seriously, I know my own tendencies.  I can no more stay out of rich, philosophical conversation, especially with bright teenage interlocutors, than a magnet can hold back from metal.  So when one of the members, who is also one of my Latin V students, told me the topic of the day would be artificial intelligence, I knew resistance would be futile.  I locked my classroom door, grading materials stacked on my table, and headed to the philosophy club room where the real action would take place.

  • What is intelligence?
  • What is artificial intelligence?
  • What is the role of creativity, self-reflection, autonomy, and desire in intelligence?  Are these necessary, in the logical sense of the word, components of intelligence?  Are these what must be achieved by a computer for us to acknowledge true A.I.?
  • What is the difference between strong and weak A.I.?
  • Why do we want to pursue strong A.I. in the first place?
  • Why, at least since Ovid's tale of Pygmalion, have humans been captivated by the idea of recreating their own kind in a different, yet fully functioning, form?
  • Why do we retell ad infinitum stories about technology taking control of us, usually with disastrous results?
  • What is the role of ethics in the A.I. discussion?  Just because we may be able to achieve strong A.I., should we?
  • Is there, as John Searle contends, a distinction between syntax and semantics, with the former being the limit of the computer program and the latter the essence of the mind?
These and other questions inspired the most scintillating conversation among these young thinkers for more than an hour.  I asked question after question and kept the fires burning, but their minds were the true source of the blaze.  As we drew to a close, I asked one more.  Did they think it possible that a group of computers could one day do as they had just done, engaging their imagination and speculating about things before undreamed?

Most, if not all, seemed to think no.  They acknowledged a certain quality and value to the kind of human-to-human interaction that they had experienced.  I did not say it with them, but I could not help observing that there was not a flicker of tech in the entire hour.  There was no Internet, no cell phones, no PowerPoint presentations.  They were not needed.  This was pure human thought and engagement, something we have been enjoying for thousands of years.  As I compose this post on my laptop for publication on my blog, I humbly suggest a simple reason.  Silicon is no substitute for soul.

No comments:

Post a Comment

While I welcome thoughts relevant to discussions of education, comments that are vulgar, insulting, or in any way inappropriate will be deleted.