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Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Steel-Driving Man

I've been using my holiday break to catch up on my pleasure reading, which to the lay person, would be largely indistinguishable from school assigned reading. I just polished off one about econometrics called Super Crunchers. Econometrics, as near as I can tell, is what actuaries do, only hepped on on some powerful digital 'roids. Evidently, as Moore's Law continues to hold and computing power explodes, decision making that was once left to the "experts" is now being given over to fairly rudimentary mathematical formulas backed up by a whole lot of terabytes.

Chapter after chapter chronicled the successful usage of econometrics to predict things as diverse as good baseball players to Hollywood blockbusters to medical diagnoses. See as it turns out, those experts aren't really all that expert. Time after time, they fail to beat the predicting ability of simple equations, equations which boil down all of life's subtleties to bare bones. As I read, I found myself nodding in agreement. It is well documented how poorly doctors perform on tests of statistical reasoning. Why should patients trust in their abilities to prescribe treatment if they don't really understand the odds. If the use of a simple algorithm can help save lives, then why shouldn't doctors swallow their pride and admit defeat, as it were?

Of course, it wasn't my ox in the grinder. Until the chapter on education. Then suddenly, I was appalled. How can the process of teaching be boiled down to scripted lesson plans? What kind of robotic rote learning could possibly come out of that?

I've since come to my senses. These computer programs are not a threat, but a blessing. They allow us to do the things that we, as fellow humans, are uniquely suited to do. If a doctor is free from having to analyze symptom after symptom, if a diagnosis is less than a Google search away, then that medical professional can focus more on the healing process. They can spend a few extra minutes holding the hand of a scared little girl, or explaining the treatment details to her mother. Besides, the programs are still guided by the garbage in, garbage out principle. They are only as accurate as the information passed into them, and that will still require skilled human doctors. The same is true for teaching.

I have no desire to sit and read from a script all day, and frankly, it's silly for me to do so, even if it proves to be the most effective teaching method. The same computers that analyze the data behind these lesson plans can easily conduct the lessons as well. Sit the kids down in front of some powerful learning software. That's fine by me, because I know it doesn't render me obsolete. It empowers me to do all the "extra" things that I wouldn't ordinarily get to do. I would have the time to really get to know each of my students. I could allow them each to progress at their own pace, and have the ability to work one on one with each of them.

No one alive today would take offense at being beaten by a machine in a test of speed or strength. What John Henry learned the hard way is second nature to us. Yet we cannot seem to accept that certain intellectual feats are now better performed by cousins of those athletic machines. We feel as though our very humanity being stolen, when in fact, the machines are helping to teach us what being human really means.

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