| In one of
my recent books, I talked about the fashionable question of artificial
intelligence. This territory has already been thoroughly covered by
Hollywood filmmakers, who have treated the world to a legion of movies
about super-intelligent robots kicking human butt – and often winning.
The great minds of Hollywood aside, what do scientists think about artificial intelligence? One American academic (let’s call him Aleksandr Bolotkin) announced his categorical and quite unfounded prognosis: artificial intelligence will be created in the 21st century! But simple computer programs that have the capacity to learn, which the professor envisions in his prediction, are about as far removed from actual intelligence as a ping-pong ball is from a planet. These programs can only redistribute information fed to them by humans: they cannot actually conceive of anything new; they cannot create.
If, however, the professor envisions the day (sometime in the 21st century) when computers will become truly thinking organisms, he is displaying the classic signs of mechanistic thinking. Consider what happened after the invention of steam engine: optimists all over the world immediately proclaimed that soon nobody would have to work, and everything would be done by steam-powered machines. Similar hullabaloo followed the spread of electricity. In Russia it was even celebrated in a popular song: “Electricity will sow, electricity will reap…” A few decades later, we heard the same notes of hungry anticipation when the first robots were unveiled. And where have all these advances gotten us? We are still here, noses to our respective grindstones, toiling away from morning till night – in fact, according to some estimates, today people are spending more time working than they ever did before!
The current wave of computerization is accompanied by a similar diarrhea of optimism. Are we really ready to start humanizing computers?
First, we must humanize our teachers.
One of my Natural Sciences students, a fairly intelligent young woman, told me about a conflict between her and her school teacher. For nearly a year, he had terrorized her – an act highly unworthy of an educator – and finally drove her to drop out of his class. When her parents came to talk to him, he told them that their daughter is an idiot, beyond the reach of a great teacher of his level. He finished his pep talk with the words, “Only god knows more about the Earth than I do!”
I was appalled by the student’s story, and decided to test the teacher’s competence for myself. As they say, the empty pot is the noisiest, and it’s usually the least knowledgeable people who are the most obnoxious. So I gave my allegedly godlike colleague a call. Without mentioning the bad blood between him and my student, I asked him a few scientific questions – not very hard, but not too easy either. Not surprisingly, he could not answer a single one.
Now we come to the subject of ignorance.
Many New York schools outright ignore textbooks. They don’t issue them – don’t even SELL them – to students, and instead rely on assorted Xeroxed handouts. I think it might have something to do with the incompetence of teachers: often, they simply don’t know many of the topics in a standard textbook. This is the exercise I like to call “basketball without the ball.”
Some teachers get by like this for years – but they are small potatoes. The experts from the Board of Education have developed a much better solution. (Someone once said, “A real expert doesn’t make small mistakes: a real expert botches things up big!”) Recently, they have begun “streamlining” study programs in physics, chemistry, and other Natural Sciences. They inexplicably deleted names of scientists from titles of theories and laws like Van Der Vaals Law, Balmer and Paschen Series, and the Gibbs Equation, giving the whole lot of them the name “alternative theories.” The Gibbs Equation was especially butchered: the local Board of Ed luminaries discarded its left portion, forcing the students to work with the amputated right side.
Watch out, Pythagoras – your theorem could be next!
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