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2017—The Year of the Bot
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon
“All education springs from some image
of the future. If the image of the future held by a society is grossly
inaccurate, its education system will betray its youth.” (Alvin
Toffler; American writer and futurist; 1928-.)
“The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet.” (William
Gibson; American-Canadian writer who coined the term “cyberspace” in
his short story “Burning Chrome” and later popularized the concept in
his debut novel, Neuromancer;
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from
magic.” (Arthur C. Clarke; British science fiction author, inventor,
and futurist; 1917-2008.)
This IAE Newsletter is about
a part of the future that has been approaching for quite some time, and
is now here. For many years, I have been collecting quotations that
resonate with my views of education. The above quotations from my
collection are all relevant to the message in this newsletter
Of the three quotes, I consider the first to be the most important. I
strongly believe that education should be designed to prepare students
for the future. To design and implement such an educational system, we
must make reasonably accurate forecasts of the future.
I recently encountered some of Vivek Wadhwa’s articles in The Washington Post. Wadhwa is a
Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University
Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at the Center
for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University.
He is writes frequently for The
Washington Post. Here is a quote from an article he wrote late
last year (Wadhwa, November 15, 2016):
In every field, machines and robots are
beginning to do the work of humans. We saw this first happen in the
Industrial Revolution, when manual production moved into factories and
many millions lost their livelihoods. New jobs were created, but it was
a terrifying time, and there was a significant societal dislocation ….
The movement to digitize jobs is well underway in low-salary service
industries. Amazon relies on robots to do a significant chunk of its
warehouse work. Safeway and Home Depot are rapidly increasing their use
of self-service checkouts. Soon, self-driving cars will eliminate
millions of driving jobs. We are also seeing law jobs disappear as
computer programs specializing in discovery eliminate the needs for
legions of associates to sift through paper and digital documents.
Soon, automated medical diagnosis will replace doctors in fields such
as radiology, dermatology, and pathology. The only refuge will be in
fields that are creative in some way, such as marketing,
entrepreneurship, strategy, and advanced technical fields. New jobs we
cannot imagine today will emerge, but they will not replace all the
lost jobs. We must be ready for a
world of perennially high unemployment rates. [Bold added for
Suppose that you had read this quote five years ago, as a forecast of
the future. And, suppose you believed it was likely an accurate
forecast. Then, what would you have said to eighth graders who were
about to move into the ninth grade, their first year of a four-year
Alternatively, what are today’s eighth graders being told, and what are
today’s high schools doing to prepare their students for what the
employment situation will likely be when they graduate from high
school? And remember, there is far more to life than just college and
jobs (Moursund, 1/9/2017).
A few months ago, I purchased a personal bot, an Echo,
from Amazon. I have enjoyed playing with this device, exploring its
artificially intelligent capabilities and limitations. The Amazon Echo
and the Google Home sold very well this past Christmas season.
These bots talk to their users through speakers that can hear a voice
from across a small room. When Echo hears the name “Alexa,” its LED
ring lights up so you can “see” that it is listening. Echo answers
questions, plays music, orders Amazon products, and tells jokes.
Here is an example of a joke:
I said: “Alexa, tell me a joke.”
Alexa responded: “What do lawyers wear to court? (Short pause.)
Most of the intelligence of the Echo resides in Amazon’s large computer
farms. The Echo receives a voice input from me, uses relatively
sophisticated artificial intelligence and powerful computers to
“understand” what I am saying, and then tries to respond by drawing on
Web resources and artificial intelligence.
I experimented with use of voice input to my computer a number of years
ago, but did not find it very useful at the time. This technology has
made a huge amount of progress since then. I am really impressed by how
well Echo transcribes my spoken words into written text. If I want, I
can see the transcription on my computer.
Hmm. Is learning to make effective use of voice input a good substitute
for or addition to learning handwriting (hand printing) or keyboarding?
This question is certainly important to our educational system. Think
about your answer before going on to the next two paragraphs.
My answer is that writing (written communication) is far more than
changing voice into text on a piece of paper or in a computer memory.
Good writing requires very careful thinking, planning, organizing a
body of knowledge and ideas, and the skills to edit, edit, edit. It
requires knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the intended
audience. Getting words onto paper or into a word processor is an
important part of the writing process, but actually it is only a modest
part of good writing.
Also, think about a person (child or adult) learning to write in a
language he or she speaks. A computer system that accurately transforms
voice input into words on a computer display screen circumvents
learning handwriting (hand printing) or keyboarding, and to a large
extent circumvents learning to spell. Today’s word processors even can
help significantly with grammar problems. Of course, what is
circumvented are considered quite important components of the current
school curriculum. You might want to practice in your mind arguments
for and against using such technology in teaching reading and writing.
While I am occasionally surprised by Echo’s capabilities, for the most
part Echo has a very long way to go before I would consider it to be
However, a large number of very talented people are working to increase
Echo’s capabilities. I find this idea quite interesting. We are all
used to the idea of purchasing consumer products, and we know that they
depreciate over time. My seven-year-old car still runs fine, but it
lacks some of the capabilities of the newest models. That is, it is
partially worn out and somewhat out of date. It has none of the
accident avoidance or self-driving features of the most modern cars.
Contrast this with a bot such as Echo. Instead of giving me poorer
performance over time, the performance of my Echo is improving over
time. This is because the real power of Echo and other similar bots
resides in the computers (the computer farms) that provide their input,
information processing and output skills. The artificial intelligence
and speed of these computer systems are steadily being improved.
Here is another quote from Wadhwa (January 6, 2017).
Long ago, our home appliances became
electrified. Soon, they will be “cognified”: integrated into
artificially intelligent systems that are accessed through voice
commands. We will be able to talk to our machines in a way that seems
natural. Microsoft has developed a voice-recognition technology that
can transcribe speech as well as a human and translate it into multiple
languages. Google has demonstrated a voice synthesis capability that is
hard to differentiate from human.
This statement reminded me of the time when an IBM’s computer named
Watson defeated a pair of human “champions” in the game of Jeopardy (Engadget Today, January 13, 2011).
When such technological progress is made available in consumer
products, individual people get to make the decisions on whether to
acquire and use the product. But, when the product is also useful in
the schooling of our children, this decision is partially taken out of
the hands of parents and gets mired in the bureaucracy and politics of
public and private school systems.
Think back to the “good old days,” when a business person in an
executive position had a stenographer and a typist. The stenographer
received voice input and wrote it in shorthand. The secretary read the
shorthand and typed it in the speaker’s natural language. Of course,
the stenographer and the secretary might have been the same person. In
any case, the boss’s grammar was corrected and perhaps the message was
rewritten to make it communicate more effectively.
As with any technology, there are early adopters, middle
adopters, late adopters, and “never” adopters. When the pace of
technological change is slow, individual people and organizations can
take a slow, carefully considered approach to adoption. People and
organizations can observe the results of early adoption. However, our
current pace of technological change is quite rapid. In some cases,
there is a good chance that the somewhat late or quite late adopters
will be left far behind and may not be able to adjust to the still more
recent changes that are occurring.
In terms of your own personal ongoing, lifelong education, you can
decide to experiment with the changes that seem likely to become
relevant and important in your life. Somewhat similarly, parents can
experiment with providing technologies to their children that the
parents believe may be appropriate in their children’s upbringing and
However, that leaves open what our educational systems could or should
be doing for all of their students. It will be interesting to see how
the various educational systems in the world deal with the problems of
rapid technological change. Will the top-down country-wide school
systems do better than the locally-controlled systems, or vice versa?
I strongly encourage you to read my recent (free) book, The Fourth R (Moursund,
12/23/2016). It presents the case that the current three R’s of
education (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic) should be expanded to
include Reasoning—computational thinking that integrates human and
computer intelligence and general capabilities throughout the
curriculum and at all grade levels (Moursund, 2016b).
Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University
of Oregon, and editor of the IAE
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books.
In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides
free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3)
non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology
and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is
the Chief Executuve Officer of AGATE.