Andy Kessler of the WSJ describes some conversations he has had with the founder/CEO of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”
Three years ago, Sal Khan and I spoke about developing a tool like the Illustrated Primer from Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” It’s an education tablet, in the author’s words, in which “the pictures moved, and you could ask them questions and get answers.” Adaptive, intuitive, personalized, self-paced—nothing like today’s education. But it’s science-fiction.
Last week I spoke with Mr. Khan, who told me, “Now I think a Primer is within reach within five years. In some ways, we’ve even surpassed some of the elements of the Primer, using characters like George Washington to teach lessons.” What changed? Simple—generative artificial intelligence. Khan Academy has been working with OpenAI’s ChatGPT since before its release last December.
In the novel, the main character Nell asks about ravens, and “the picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. ‘R A V E N,’ the book said. ‘Raven. Now, say it with me.’ ‘Raven.’ ”
Later, she asks, “What’s an adventure?” and “both pages filled with moving pictures of glorious things: girls in armor fighting dragons with swords, and girls riding white unicorns through the forest, and girls swinging from vines, swimming in the blue ocean, piloting rocket ships through space. . . . After awhile all of the girls began to look like older versions of herself.”
I admire what Khan Academy is trying to do for education..which, in America at least, needs all the help it can get…and I’m sure that AI has a lot of potential in this field. But a couple of things are bothering me here.
First, that Raven sequence. Is it really a good idea to teach reading with all those dramatic visual effects? Won’t kids later be disappointed when attempting to read anything that doesn’t include such effects? Indeed, I believe such concerns were raised, years ago, about Sesame Street.
Perhaps more importantly, consider that line After awhile all of the girls began to look like older versions of herself. Really? Do we want to bring up people who are so focused on themselves that they can’t identify with even fictional characters who don’t look like themselves? Might be of different ethnicity, difference gender, different age. I thought the development such broader perspective was supposed to be one of the purposes of education in general and of literature in particular.
Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”