Monday, February 12, 2018

Smarter than you think – book overview

Here is an overview of the book - Smarter than you think; How technology is changing our minds for the better - by Clive Thompson. Published 2013 by Penguin Press.

Positive review from nytimes.

The book proposes humans are innately wired up to learn. AI/ robots / AI agents etc. are only as good as their programmes. When both machines and humans work together, they are better than all human or all AI efforts. Therefore, it is important to leverage off the potentialities of AI etc. rather than fearing the coming onslaught.

Additionally, the way we perceive the world and ‘knowledge’ has changed with the widespread availability of information and the ubiquity of ‘smart devices’. Instead of being passive consumers, large numbers now create and share their efforts. People who would not have written / shared experiences beyond their friends and families 30 years ago, now upload opinion pieces, instructions, reflections etc.

The book has 10 chapters and is written in an accessible prose. Notes (30+pages) and index round off the book.

By way of introduction, chapter 1 ‘the rise of the centaur’ sets the scene. The chapter uses the well-known late 90’s batter between chess master Gary Kasporov and the IBM Deep Blue to introduce the concept that both humans and computers have their own strengths and weaknesses. In 2005, ‘free-style’ chess tournaments saw two relatively lower ranked chess players, who were able to ‘collaborate’ with a chess computer, win the tournament against teams made up of grandmaster chess players or chess computers only. The ability to integrate machine assistance into the decision making process of chess, is argued to be the defining factor. This chapter also presents how the author has shifted positions, from being pessimistic about the future digital future, to being optimistic about how humankind has been able to leverage off the many opportunities afforded.

The second chapter, ‘we the memorious’ overviews the ways people remember and discusses the pros and cons of recording ‘life blogs’ or ‘video blogs’ of daily happenings. Technology allows us to have ‘infinite memory’ but too much is perhaps not always good.

Chapter 3 is on the theme ‘public thinking’ summarises the rise of ‘citizenship journalism’. How some ‘accidental bloggers’ became conduits for information when dictatorial regimes imposed news blackouts and the ways this form of communication has changed our lives forever. For large segments of society who never really did much reading or writing, the advent of blogging has shifted many into becoming much more literate to cope with a mostly text based internet. There is evidence first year students write longer pieces and more complex pieces when compared to two decades ago.

Of interest to educators, the chapter on ‘new literacies’ overviews the shift from the focus of literacy on reading and writing to encompassing multiliteracies. These include all the usual needs to become digitally fluent but also the visual literacies and ‘3D literacies’ which new tools and platforms bring.
Next chapter extends to the previous with discussion around ‘the art of finding’. Opens with a discussion on how being able to google, helps us surmount the ‘tip of the tongue’ syndrome but also may cause some to lose confidence when the internet goes down or their smart phone is unable to connect with the internet. Discusses how access to anytime/ anywhere information changes the way we prioritise what we learn and how dependence may affect our creativity. Too much information is a distraction but selected digital memories can amplify our access to brain functions.

Following is a chapter on ‘the puzzle hungry world’ which tracks the rise of digital games and the shift in how games are used by people. In particular, how games which require collaboration and harness collective thinking changes the way people play, work and learn.

The next chapter is also useful for educators as it discusses the potentialities digital technologies bring to the ‘Digital school’. Khan academy is used as an example of how primary school children learn advanced mathematics when they are allowed to become self-directed and learn for their own fulfilment. Uses example from NZ school on how blogging improved reading and writing for students as their work was being read by others beyond their own community. Also discusses the pro and cons of teaching children to code.

The chapter on ‘Ambient awareness’ adds another technology assisted capability / potentiality. The digital trail collected across our lives lead to data patterns, allowing analysis to reveal our routine life flow. Included are the networks we are part off and our perspectives on life. Collection of ‘self-talk’ and broadcasting these, help understand the perspectives across a team. The pros and cons of ambient awareness are discussed.

‘The connected society’ is the penultimate chapter and brings together the ideas from the previous chapters. Uses citizen instigated protests against the state in China / Egypt / Azerbaijian as examples of how technology, tapped through the expertise of a few becoming mainstream practice, is able to create social / political change.

The epilogue returns the discussion to AI with Watson, an IBM programme able to play Jeopardy - requiring AI to take intuitive leaps based on experienced living. At the moment, Watson runs on a supercomputer but predictions are for supercomputer processing speeds will be available within a decade on a laptop. If Watson is a precursor, that some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies humans are capable of, may no longer the sole domain of humans. 

Overall, the book can be seen to be counter to other books on a similar vein. For example - The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. My thoughts are than humans have survived due to their adaptability. Adaptations can go either way and most people will experience, learn and adjust. Not to the polar opposites of technology will make us all become subservient or we become part cyborg, but a sort of middle ground whereby some will have to work through 'addiction' to the less advantageous aspects of technology and other will overly embrace the perceived advantage. Education has to play a role in assisting people to understand the pros and cons, attain the literacies to make use of the aspects of technology which will enhance their lives, and continue to be vigilant as to how AI develops (i.e. the ethics of AI). 

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