Can a Robot be Wise? On naming a direction of deeper understanding.

Honda's Asimo and looking glass reflection

Honda's Asimo, Living with Robots

In Calling Transformative Learning into Question:  Some Mutinous Thoughts, Michael Newman thoughtfully declines the notion of a ‘transformative learning’ that differs from other kinds of learning, not just by degree but as an entirely new category.  Learning may be good, he claims, may even be profoundly good.  The current literature, however, presents insufficient evidence of teaching interventions which actually cause transformations at the level of personhood, bringing learners to entirely new realms of self-efficacy and power. His review finds instead mostly anecdotes and self-reporting. Stories don’t prove anything, he claims, including invention along with the recording. From that viewpoint, one might wonder what Mr. Newman would make of the coming ‘Singularity’, that mother of all transformations, where the intelligence of our machines will exceed all human intelligence on Earth.  Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil predict this event no more than one more human generation out, 30 years or so, and have labeled it as the endpoint of the human era – 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. Yikes.

Such projections imply that students in school now can expect to compete worldwide for jobs and a niche in the global exchange.  Their children, however, will have to contend with robot-kind as well for their rightful place on Earth and a future worth living in. If even partially predictive, how are we doing at preparing for such massively disruptive changes?  What role does “education” have to play in the coming contestation: man versus machine?  With exponentially rising machine intelligence, how is human intelligence supposed to keep up? If Mr. Newman is correct and we have no solid foundation (yet) for transforming our current educational system, how big o’ trouble are we in, really?  Certainly Kurzweils’ Law of Accelerating Returns graphs inspire a rising sense of urgency to it all.

But imagine if you will a kind of learning that could map to exponential gains in understanding, accelerating the learner’s journey from novice to wise mastery.  What might such a learning path look like?  The remainder of this post will sketch out a first pass at such a description.
For a start, we might dust off the classic Data Information Knowledge Wisdom hierarchy commonly ascribed to Russell Ackoff (as modified by Bellinger et al in 2004).

DIKW graph

Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy

That path seems reasonable enough through the first three stages, indicating increases in both connectedness and the understanding dimensions.  Understanding relationships distinguishes information from data and understanding patterns in information builds knowledge.  But the transit between knowledge and wisdom is where the linear progression starts to break down.  Wisdom, alas, does not necessarily accrue from knowledge, or we humans wouldn’t ever find ourselves making the same mistake over and over and over again.  Bellinger et al suggested understanding principles builds wisdom but I contend there are a couple points missing from their model.

No matter how much one knows, experience teaches. “Knowledge is a load of bricks” said the speculative fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, “understanding is a way of building”.  Novices need practice and the intelligence that comes from error and trial (and thoughtful revision) to build up understanding. So, for our model, we might borrow the Greek term ‘praxis‘, denoting a process of reflective practice without, necessarily, including the element of judgment. There might be good practice (eupraxis) or bad practice, misfortune (dyspraxis).  Understanding experience yielded from putting ideas and skills into practice is what allows the building up of good judgment, an essential component of wisdom.

Wisdom, however, is a much broader term than just discernment.  By philosophical bent, the term can include good judgment and; compassion, morality, memory, spirituality, sentience, consciousness, soul, and a concern for the flourishing of humanity.  80 years of science fiction novels have prepared readers for the possibility of other sentient (sensing and conscious) beings in our universe.  Smart as our machines may become, can a robot ever have a soul or consciousness?   Even if embodied?  Who could ever forget that scene in the Star Trek movie “First Contact” where the Borg Queen is lowered from above, spinal column first, into her “body”.  But was the Queen conscious, sentient?  Can a robot ever be wise?

The futurist Ray Kurzweil on consciousness: “I am trying to illustrate why consciousness is not an easy issue. If we talk about consciousness as just a certain type of intelligent skill: the ability to reflect on one’s own self and situation, for example, then the issue is not difficult at all because any skill or capability or form of intelligence that one cares to define will be replicated in nonbiological entities (i.e., machines) within a few decades. With this type of objective view of consciousness, the conundrums do go away. But a fully objective view does not penetrate to the core of the issue, because the essence of consciousness is subjective experience, not objective correlates of that experience…There exists no objective test that can conclusively determine its presence.”

Without a reliable measure of consciousness then, how can we delineate the road to wisdom?  And why might ‘wisdom’ be a desirable end goal in education, anyway?  If knowledge is power, power is a two-edged sword.  With one edge victory and the other peace, it is the right use of power that allows us to have both at the same time. And we humans will need to use the power of our technologies wisely if we are to survive the rise

Robo Sapiens

Robo Sapiens

of Robo Sapiens which, like the venerable Apple desktop computer that changed everything, is now being introduced to human society as a children’s toy ($200 at Amazon).

A definition of the right use of power would align very nicely with a dictionary definition of wisdom, including “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”   Rightness and trueness and justice are a part of the values component of wisdom, joining evaluative purpose to the lessons of praxis.  Borrowing from the Greeks again, Aristotle named purpose ‘telos‘, or igniting the will- to act or to make or to know the truth.   Reflecting on and understanding experience is the yield of praxis but purpose enjoins value driven action. And just as praxis does not necessarily imply good judgment, telos does not necessarily imply good purpose.

It is at this stage, I believe, where the learner’s path diverges from a linear progression and, through performance, through ‘arete’ or the realization of purpose, the gain in understanding abounds mostly in the “connectedness” direction. An experience that cascades understanding through boundaries, across networks and time, amongst people- that could be expressed as an understanding of mesh and could be plotted as the experience field that builds toward attaining a wisdom of purpose.  We know it when we see it.  Two examples for your consideration:  Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir piece Lux Aurumque (on the making side of things), or Lisa Gansky’s TED talk on understanding mesh as the future of business (on the doing side).

Making such presumptions, our model for building from knowledge toward wisdom might now look so:

Projecting a model, however, is but the first step in defining a deeper learning. Next might come mapping out weigh points along the path and evaluating them against learner experiences, both uniquely and in aggregate.  Is an “ah ha” moment an experience of rounding the curve into accelerating connectedness?  Where would we locate the “hmmm…” moment, flicker of the provocation to inquire/reflect?  Or where set the spark that ignites the telos of purposefulness?  With marker posts, could we then develop learning experiences designed to accelerate a learner’s transit?

Finally, by what metric will we define the attainment of human wisdom?  Might it be extended to a machine?  We can struggle to define what makes us most human- like Brian Christian, confederate winner of the 2009 Loebner Prize Turing Test to distinguish human from machine.  Or, like COG’s MIT scientist crew, we can throw in the towel of exhaustively trying to define intelligence, just build one, and see where we get to.  The insights brought back from such forays can help to refine our art of facilitating understanding through instructional design.

About Susan

Instructional Designer, Center for Distance Education
This entry was posted in all, article, review, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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