Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I, Robot.

Re: Robots Stand for Bed-ridden Students from eSchool News
Re: Pebbles, Home

It's a bit of a scary thought, that the students in the classroom "have become used to the robot and were treating it as if it were Achim after just a few days", as stated in the eSchool article. The story is about robots as classroom intermediaries for students who cannot physically be in the classroom. Or at least that is what it purports to be. But in the back of my mind, I can't help but think about all the additional educational and social data that must be being collected by someone for reference for future experiments. I dunno....something about us all having our own stand-in robots for when we would rather be fishing than listening to a math lecture. Or maybe to study social interaction between machines and humans. Oh no! Now, Kurzweils comments about machines being the dominant species in a few years comes flooding up from the back of my mind. Maybe the experiment are really about how robots accept real people in a learning environment. Who knows. It's a bit of a quirky story, but on the other hand it is certainly expectable technology. Even chaos has patterns and though it may seem rather chaotic that this mecho-creature exists, it may be the first event an a long chain of events on the chaotic scale. If it is, then it makes Kurzweils thoughts even more valid.

The truth of is, that we are already daily dealing sets of robots. When you call information for a phone number, you are speaking to a machine. When you draw cash out of your bank via ATM, you are dealing with a machine. Driving down the street, if you look at the signal lights you will often notice the mechanistic camera eyes of some sensory network that is fed into a machine to allow some other machine to monitor our daily travels. The same machines have been taught to give you a ticket if you fail to comply with certain laws (red light cameras and toll booth cameras). We are not only interacting with the machines, we are actually teaching them ways to think:
And who will write the software that makes this contraption useful and productive? We will. In fact, we're already doing it, each of us, every day. When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea. Wikipedia encourages its citizen authors to link each fact in an article to a reference citation. Over time, a Wikipedia article becomes totally underlined in blue as ideas are cross-referenced. That massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember. It is how neural nets answer questions. It is how our global skin of neurons will adapt autonomously and acquire a higher level of knowledge. - From Wired, "We Are the Web"
So my next question has got to be, what does this have to do with Education or Information Consultation. Well, I think I have some experience with this very thing, or at least a very early version of it. My experience comes about with my dealing with the rag tag gang of web education subversives, The Webheads. Every Sunday morning at 1200 GMT the webheads meet online. Members from all over the world. People from many cultures and social backgrounds. They started meeting at TappedIn with only text chat capabilities. Then it was on to the audio capabilities of Yahoo Messenger. Now, we often Skypecast with voice and video. It's sort of like being in a classroom online, but there is no classroom, but everyone has the potential to see everyone else. All that holds back our complete visual presence is bandwidth. When computers get enough storage and fast enough to process all the information, then we will all be classmates in miraculous virtual classroom. Now the "global skin of neurons" is starting to mean something. We are but a first step.

The very teachers who are the Webheads, take their experiences back and now add them into their regular classrooms. It's not unusual at all for any one of us to virtually visit someone else's classroom half way round the world. The point is, that the same technology that creates a PEBBLE also tears down the classroom walls as we know them. No longer are we bound by culture or geography. It is feasible for anyone, anywhere to join in a class on virtually any subject. It will make us rethink standards and how to apply them to students. It will make us ask ourselves what the role of the classroom teacher is. It will test libraries and books, social networking, and language. It is but a glimpse of the future that is here now.

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