The brain is a more powerful learning device than any piece of technology. In his talk at the AoC/Jisc Technology Summit, Alex Beard urges delegates to take human intelligence seriously, developing technology that supports our capacity to learn.
Your head contains a learning device far more powerful than a computer. The 100 billion neurons of the human brain are each connected with as many as 10,000 others, creating a neural network of incredible power. Where a typical laptop carries out a rapid one billion operations per second, your brain does an unfathomable 2.2 quadrillion. That’s 15 zeros.
Despite this, in our digital era, we’re increasingly obsessed with improving our tech, inventing AI that can do everything from recognising faces to radiography, chess-playing to bot-chat. That’s exciting. But in frantically celebrating the power of technology, we risk undervaluing human intelligence. Humans are born to learn, and our brains are incredible learning devices.
Three steps to upgrading your potential
What would it mean if we took our natural, organic intelligence more seriously, using our capacity to learn as a starting point and building technology around that? Too often, we take the tech as a starting point.
In order to avoid becoming more stupid, losing our ability to think, or forgetting what we know as we’re sucked stealthily into the machine zone, here instead are three ways to upgrade ourselves:
First, invest equally in exploring human and machine learning. Since IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken off. But so too have our own minds, not least in their ability to invent ever more powerful AI. Under the right conditions, your human intelligence grows hand-in-hand with new technology. There are some fantastic examples of this all over the world, being used in schools and universities.
Today, platforms such as Century Tech in the UK and Squirrel AI in China adapt learning, creating a precise diagnostic profile for each individual, and sharing that information with teachers to help them be even better in their practice. It’s impressive tech, but it only functions successfully in the hands of human teachers and learners.
Second, resist user-friendliness. Your tech isn’t interested in making you smarter, but only in your harnessing your attention with a continual flow of zaps, nudges, buzzes and bleeps. Sure, it’s fun – like eating candy for a kid. But just as those delicious sugary snacks have no nutritional value, neither is there learning value in what apps are feeding you.
Ecole 42 is a self-guided coding university based in Paris that is taking this insight seriously. Remarkably, the university has no teachers. Everything is done online and students have to work out their own path and collaborate with their peers. It’s an interesting example of what tech can do when learners have to figure things out for themselves.
Third, don’t automate human intelligence, augment it. Your tech wants to make life easy for you, outsourcing map-reading, calculation and memory. But your brain thrives on challenge. Just as when you go to the gym, you don’t get any fitter unless you feel that burn, so you can’t expand your mind without some intellectual heavy-lifting.
There are tools that help humans to do that lifting. I recently met a teacher in Finland who uses fairly simple technology – such as Google Sheets and vlogs - to deliver content in his classroom. He casts his role as a coach to give pupils feedback on their abilities of perseverance, creativity and co-operation. The tech is in the background, being careful to leave the thinking to the students and teacher.
Finally, remember that you are born to learn. Right now, machines are making you stupid, but what might the future might look like if we use tech wisely and train people in the right ways? If you follow these rules, it’s a simple equation: tech plus brain can make you smart.