Education, AI, and Narcissism

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.

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

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…”

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.  There do seem to be a lot of people today whose interests are largely restricted to themselves and to the endless struggle for power.
Maybe I’m overreacting to the potential harm of this kind of AI-based customization…perhaps it’s simply a cute trick which will help get students involved in learning rather than on random scrolling and status-measurement on their phones.  But I see so much appeal to narcissism in so many types of communications these days…”The price YOU deserve”…”Here’s YOUR weather”…”Let’s check YOUR money–the Dow closed today at…”….and the narcissism is coupled with increasing pressure for group rather than individual identity…not “Our Customers” or “Our African-American Customers” but “Members of Our African-American Community.”
What do you think?
See also my related post Classics and the Public Sphere.

Worth Pondering

All the risks you didn’t take come and take their revenge.
–Anna Gát, @TheAnnaGat, at Twitter

 I’m reminded of a passage in Walter Miller’s great novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz: 

To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

(I had a Worth Pondering series that ran for several years, but didn’t keep it up for some reason.  Think I’ll restart it, using new items as well as posts from the archives.)

Worthwhile Reading and Viewing

There’s been lots of talk about the need for the US to produce more of its own semiconductor chips–but it’s not just the making of the chips that matters, it’s also the making of the machines that make the chips.  The market for the highest-end chipmaking equipment is dominated by the Dutch company ASML, which now will be prohibited from exporting these machines to China, per Dutch government agreement with US request.

ASML’s current high-end lithography machine has over 100,000 components and takes 40 freight containers to ship.  Unsurprisingly, ASML’s CEO says that the export restrictions will simply push China to create its own technology, and also unsurprisingly, David Goldman (‘Spengler’) agrees.

Mark Andreessen says The most important idea and paper I’ve encountered in the last 20 years is “availability cascades”.  His summary here.

The strategic importance of the Black Sea, especially as it relates to the Ukraine War.

Dating dealbreakers for women.

Speaking of dating, here’s a study suggesting that creative output leads to mating opportunities.

Ridicule:  Some thoughts at The Orthosphere.

Violence and Self-Esteem: Some thoughts on the connection.

How people kept multiple tabs open in the 1500s:

Nothing Beyond the Current Moment

From Harvard:

Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time,  rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote).  It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college  “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it.  One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview.  I do not get the impression that it actually does so.

In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:

One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.

to which someone responded: 

that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!

 …a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US.  Changing the narratives on heroes and villains,  selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”

I don’t think most people inherently view the past as uninteresting; many stores, after all, have traditionally begun with the phrase “Once upon a time.”

I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology.  For more on this,  see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.

And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students.  Maybe not.   And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.

Although I suspect some of these students are perfectly capable of concentrating their attention when they really want to.  Some of them are probably computer science majors–hard to write or even understand a program without really concentrating on it. Some may be drama majors–I imagine that learning one’s lines and acting them requires a pretty significant level of focused attention.  And there are surely many other examples.  But the intrinsic motivation which is there in those cases doesn’t seem to be there in the case of reading literature.
Or am I kidding myself, and has the  short attention span phenomenon now become so pervasive that a lot of these students–and and even higher proportion of the people who didn’t go to Harvard…are going to come into adulthood lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?
Your thoughts?

Drucker’s Prescience

Peter Drucker, in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity, discusses the increasing role of knowledge in modern societies and suggests:

As a result, it is quite possible that the great new ‘isms’ of tomorrow will be ideologies about knowledge. In tomorrow’s intellectual and political philosophies knowledge may well take the central place that property, i.e. things, occupied in capitalism and Marxism.

This must have seemed like a rather strange idea to most readers in 1969…the great new ‘isms’, and therefore the great political and cultural fault-lines, were going to be about knowledge?  Surely, debate about the nature of knowledge must have seemed like something more appropriate for a university philosophy course in epistemology than a likely major subject for the political and media stage.

But, isn’t this precisely what we are seeing now, with all of the assertions and arguments about ‘disinformation’, the assertions about ‘science says’ and resultant reactions and critiques, the revelations about social media bias, and the concerns about potential artificial-intelligence bias?  These are all arguments about what constitutes a valid, useful, and true source of information.

The whole idea that it should be possible to present and hear arguments for both sides of an issue…which is the entire basis of our political system and our justice system–is under attack. People argue that they are in danger if they are exposed to a view different from their own.  There seems to be a longing for a single, unquestioned source of truth.

Or maybe the whole idea of ‘truth’ is obsolete in many minds.  Things have reached the point at which there is actually a need to defend the possibility of objective knowledge existing at all.   Maybe one reason for the decreasing interest in the pursuit of objective truth is that most people today are much more insulated from the struggle for survival, and instead of worrying what truths reflect they way the world works–‘how can I keep my hut warm in the depths of winter?’–they worry about what truth-claims reflect the social world which they must navigate and will advance their position in this social world.  This is the view of the courtier, rather than that of the merchant, the peasant, or the warrior.

I’ve previously quoted something a wise executive said to me, many years ago:

When you’re running a large organization, you aren’t seeing reality.  It’s like you’re watching a movie where you get to see maybe one out of every thousand frame, and from that, you have to figure out what is going on.

If this is true of the person running a large organization, it is even more true of the individual in a democracy, both in his incarnation as a citizen and voter and his incarnation as an individual decision-maker in matters concerning his own life and that of his family.  He cannot possibly directly observe all of the factors bearing on, say, the border situation or the war in Ukraine or the Covid vaccines or the stability of the Social Security system, hence, those who control what frames are presented to him–and in what sequence–have tremendous influence.

Those who seek power and/or cling to power generally seek to control what is viewed as truth.  Someone at Twitter just remarked:

Fun fact: soviet psychiatry version of DSM 5 had a condition “truthseeking” (правдаискательство) used to commit dissidents for questioning the legitimacy of the bolshevik regime.

I doubt that Drucker foresaw anything as radical as some of the positions taken in today’s fights over knowledge, but overall, his forecast appears to have been a correct one.

Your thoughts?