Battle Robots + AI = Trouble?

Although I’m very confident that artificial intelligences will be complimentary to humans and extremely beneficial to humanity it did give me pause today to combine the following two news items:

1) Larry Page of Google notes that he feels the brain’s algorithms are not all that complex and seemed confident that the Google folks now working on AI will have a quality intelligence developed soon.

2) Pentagon funds semi-autonomous battle robot project at Carnagie Mellon.

I wouldn’t want to have that robot’s machine gun staring down at me on the day when the robot decides humans are too irrational to deserve the planet.    Of course for this project the robot will drive itself but a human will be operating the gun.

“hey, says the battle robot, would you mind plugging me into the network jack over there … for just a few minutes ? ” 

Jobs to bad teachers: You should be out of JOBS!

I’m still digesting Steve Jobs comments about educational reform that will likely prove to be controversial. My first reaction is to say amen – he’s talking good stuff and I can only hope educators listen up. Jobs is suggesting two key pieces of educational reform. One is the elimination of textbooks in favor of free online content, regularly updated by experts in the field. Gee, I’d have to say that one is pretty much a no brainer, though I’m worried this won’t be clear to many teachers, too many of whom fear the online educational cornucopia rather than embracing it. This idea is more provocative than it appears at first. Textbooks are part of the insulation we have between the “real world” and school. Online interactive instruction would break this down in very positive ways, not to mention save money and bring unprecedented levels of expertise to students. Textbook: $55. Getting nobel prize winners to interact in real time with high school students across the country? Priceless. I say bring it on, Steve!

The second suggestion is to make it easier to fire bad teachers. I certainly and strongly agree with this in principle, though I’m not sure in practice this style works well in the public sector because it can reduce the morale and productivity of the good teachers and I’m not convinced there are a lot of “bad teachers” out there, especially in the K-12 programs. I’m the son of two teachers, the spouse of a teacher, and friend and relative to perhaps a hundred teachers across the country (I have a very large extended family). Teachers, in my extensive experience, are a good group of hard working folks who almost to a person are primarily and overwhelmingly interested in helping kids.

So, will firing the few bad apples help or hurt? In my talks with teachers it is always striking to me how different the perceptions are of good, hard working folks in the public sector compared to those of us in the private sector. Like Steve Jobs I’m gung ho on the benefits of kicking some major ass when needed. Incompetence should be “rewarded” with a swift boot out the door. However the private sector has this expectation where the public sector does not. Bringing the fear of firing to the education sector could bring unintended consequences such as forcing the good teachers to process more paperwork to “prove” their worth and thus diminishing their ability to teach. I’d want to see proof that “firing bad teachers” will do a lot of good before we go to far in this direction, though clearly we should help put pressure on *all* systems to allow for dealing with incompetence swiftly and mercilessly. That is not ruthless at all because the alternative is far worse as it lets a single bad worker ruin hundreds of children’s lives or thousands of products.