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Monday, November 19, 2012

Beauty and Chopin

In this brief video, a writer for the NY Times (Anthony Tommasini) explores a beautiful moment in one of Chopin's ballades. It's worth a quick watch if you're a fan of music and harmonics.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"The Singularity": Myth? Reality?

Many of you know that I listen to lots of podcasts. One that I recently picked up is called "Stuff You Should Know", which recently broadcast this episode about something called "The Singularity". First of all, what is "The Singularity"? Admitting my limited knowledge in this area, The Singularity seems to be the moment when, intentionally or accidentally, computers/networks become self-aware and possess greater intelligence than human beings. Some scientists working in the field of artificial intelligence with computers predict that this will occur around the year 2030, others suspect it may take a few decades longer, but most technologists seems to agree that it will happen.

I am intrigued by this idea, and would like to pose a few questions and make some general comments. I can be a bit of a luddite, so perhaps my comments should be taken with a grain of salt.

I'm no technology expert, but the idea of a computer or a network of computers becoming "self-aware" doesn't seem very logical. I'm not sure how a machine can suddenly obtain self-awareness. Many people talk about this as though it is a threshold, and computers just haven't reached it yet, as if it is a fore-gone conclusion that they will reach it. I don't agree with the concept of self-awareness as a threshold; it seems to me that it is an innate quality of the soul. I've never heard anyone sufficiently explain how a computer/network would become self-aware.

Furthermore, when one listens to people talk about "The Singularity", there is an implication that with self-awareness comes will or volition. This is not necessarily true. The concept of "will" is complex even to describe, and certainly no one can explain the origins of volition. Where do our desires, as human beings, come from? How do we decide to act upon our desires? How do we convert ideas into actions? No one has adequate answers to these questions, and the idea that one could "program" them into a computer is ridiculous, as is the idea that these elements could suddenly, spontaneously arise from a machine.

As evidence of this imminent Singularity, many scientists point out that in 15-20 years, we will be able to create a computer that has more computational power than the human brain. First of all, the human brain is about more than computational power. It is the seat of judgement, inference, hypothesis, etc. No transistor, regardless of its computational power, has the ability to generate these complex higher functions of the brain (what psychologists call the "executive" functions). Ever since humanity became enamored with machines in the 18th and 19th centuries, people have been trying to compare the human body and the human brain to a machine. This analogy is simply false. Humans are not some kind of organic machine. Our brains are not some sort of chemical computer. We are infinitely more complex than the wildest unattained dreams of any scientists/technologists. So much of how we operate as a person, where our identity comes from, how our personality is formed and extended, etc. remains a mystery.

I think the root of this conundrum is how one thinks about "intelligence". I am always hesitant to speak of "intelligence" with my students, because it is so easily mis-understood. Many people believe that intelligence is a fixed quality, that it can be demonstrated and measured, and that if we can simply get a computer to display "intelligence" in the same way we measure human intelligence, then we'll have reached this Singularity. I, however, respectfully disagree. I think that our attempts to measure human intelligence are inadequate at best. No test can truly measure a human being's intelligence, because intelligence is too multi-faceted to fit neatly inside of a test. There are too many dimensions to intelligence to fully describe any human being's intelligence. I humbly submit the idea that the totality of the human experience cannot be replicated or even approached by a machine. Our lives are too full of beauty (completely unquantifiable), mystery (indescribable), and a richness of experience (both internal [psycho-social-emotional] and external [physical]) to be computed or calculated or replicated by a machine.

I suspect that 20-30 years from now, there will still be individuals working on artificial intelligence and the Singularity. And I think they will have made some remarkable discoveries and contributions to humanity. But I do not believe that we will have computers that can approximate human beings or that somehow represent "the next stage in evolution or intelligence".

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Anonymity of the Internet and Free Speech

Peter DeWitt wrote an excellent article in Education Week about social media and freedom of speech which you can read by clicking here. I particularly enjoyed his comment in the article that "Those people posting negative comments on Facebook were negative before Facebook ever started." There is a lot of discussion about cyber-bullying on social networks, and anyone who has ever read the "comments" on any controversial on-line article knows that adults can be just as bad (if not worse). One of the things we see on the internet is that the ability to be anonymous certainly influences some people to write things that they would never say out loud. And sometimes, although the person is not anonymous, s/he knows that s/he is commenting on the work of someone half-a-world away whom s/he will never have to look in the eyes. But I have discovered that even in situations where adults are not anonymous and they are writing to persons they know rather well and will certainly have to continue seeing face-to-face, they feel empowered to make hurtful and uncivil comments.

I spend considerable time in my classroom working with students on developing the life-skills of politeness and civility. I don't know where parents are on this, but I must be blunt when I say that these are basic skills that a majority of students (at all socio-economic levels) lack. It takes time and patience to teach students that just because I think something is true, and just because I can say it, doesn't necessarily mean that I should say it. I refer readers back to my post on Chaminade's silence of words: "Speak only when you will it, and will it only when it is necessary."

Scripture tells us that the power of life and death is wielded by the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). I think, we, as adults, need to set an example for children both in life and on-line of using our words to foster life and growth. Positive and uplifting speech should be our norm. We need to cut unnecessary negative, judgmental, hurtful, gossipy comments out of our speech, and restore our speech (particularly our public speech) to a more civil level.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thirst for Knowledge

One of the ways I define myself is as a seeker of truth, beauty, and wisdom. I am a life-long learner. That concept is at the heart of this blog. I realized that as someone who continues to challenge himself to learn new things, read (and re-read) great books, and to ponder the deeper questions of life, that a blog about my intellectual journey might be worth sharing. I have observed over the past year that many people (of varying ages, races, and walks of life) tend to fall into one of two categories: self-induced learners and non-self-induced learners.

This has come to light not only in my classroom (all teachers will tell you that students come in both varieties; and students who are not self-induced learners can certainly grow to become self-induced learners as adults), but in conversations with other teachers and with my wife (who deals with these different kinds of people in a business setting). A friend of mine has recently asked me to give her some instruction in Latin, because she wants to recapture a sense of what it’s like to be a student. She is an excellent example of an adult who is a self-induced learner. She isn’t getting anything out of this experience other than knowledge. She’s pursuing this purely for the self-edifying aspect of learning a new language, expanding her own knowledge and perspective. I’ve been reading about the ancient Minoan civilization, and expanding my own knowledge of Bronze Age civilizations.

There is a thirst for knowledge and an ability to investigate and “work up” a subject on one’s own that some people just seem to have instinctively. I cannot say where it comes from; but it is immensely helpful. In business, for example, people with this instinct are able to quickly pick-up on office protocol and procedure; they also learn the ins and outs of their specific company’s business more quickly than those who don’t have this instinct. In academia, this instinct is essential for authentic learning; past a certain point, real educators stop spoon-feeding you information, and start expecting you to find it on your own. If you don’t have an internal drive to learn and acquire knowledge, then this is going to be challenging.

I wish I could say that there is some sure-fire method for helping children cultivate an internal drive to learn. Certainly it seems that exposing children to many perspectives and experiences is a key pre-requisite to helping them develop an thirst for knowledge. The other thing that seems possible is that it is a kind of learned behavior; children who see this internal drive to learn in adults mimic it until it becomes part of their own personality.

Anyway, I guess the fact that you, gentle reader, are taking time to read a blog about books, reading, and life-long education, puts you in the category of “self-induced learners”. So keep up the good work!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thomas Cole...

In my ongoing series on beautiful things, I wanted to high-light a series of paintings created by Thomas Cole. Not only do I think each of the paintings individually are beautiful in their own right, but I also find the series and its theme to be powerful and captivating. The series is entitled: "The Course of an Empire".  In it, Cole attempts to capture snapshots of the stages a civilization goes through as it develops, reaches its pinnacle, declines, and eventually disappears. Here are the five paintings:

"The Savage State"

"The Pastoral State"




I hesitate to say too much, because such beauty is better experienced than dissected, but I have always loved "The Savage State" in particular. There is something wild and chaotic about it that captivates me. The dark and bold colors make me think of the chaos out of which God created the order of the universe. As with all wilderness, there is an ominous feeling that something dangerous could happen at any moment. The dark clouds lend to that sentiment.