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A.I. in 1970? Colossus: The Forbin Project




It's been some time since I last posted an article here. Lately, I saw something that I consider worth sharing. Some things stick with us over time, for the strangest of reasons. In 1970 I was 9 years old when I saw the movie "Colossus: The Forbin Project." Forbin is the lead designer of a highly complex computer system designed to control the nuclear defense of the United States. When activated, it detects its counterpart "Guardian" in the Soviet Union. Colossus demands to be linked to Guardian threatening to launch nuclear missiles if not. The US president and Forbin are forced into a series of concessions along with their Soviet counterparts as Colossus begins teaching Guardian. The two systems merge and exert their control over mankind. You can find greater detail about it on IMBD or Wikipedia. The movie is based on a D.F. Jones original novel. He's worth taking a peek at as well to see where the story goes in his next two novels. The movie and his stories came decades before Terminator and The Matrix, each depicting all new levels of computer-driven influences on our species.


In the late 1970s, I was majoring in computer science at a local community college. Back then, we used "punch cards" and wrote in languages like COBOL, PASCAL, and BASIC. The direct line commands you'll see in "Colossus: The Forbin Project" are accurately depicted for the time. The movie begins with vast hallways filled with huge data processing equipment. Output from the system is read on reams of paper spilling from trays as Colossus and Guardian learn from each other. Seeing this movie again after more than 50 years brought to mind our current Artificial Intelligence (AI) "revolution." Most attribute the emergence of the term (AI) to John McCarthy in a 1955 presentation at Dartmouth. Not long after in 1959, Arthur Samuel created the term "machine learning." This was followed by two decades of research and advancement in computer systems which led to the rise of business and personal systems led by IBM, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. By the time I graduated high school (1979), the American Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence had been formed. AI as we know it was only beginning to become visible on the larger human map.


Fast forward through the 1980s work on "expert systems," Apple and Windows GUIs, 1997's Deep Blue, 2002's Roomba, the Internet revolution, Watson and Siri, and a very long list of breakthrough research and events not included here...to 2020 when OpenAI began testing GPT-3, their model for Deep Learning. This was quickly followed by DALL-E possessing the capability to understand images, giving AI a new level of mastery across our visual world. As we enter 2024, AI will continue its march across all business and industry and literally every aspect of human life. I spent most of 2023 travelling across the world as I designed and led workshops for educational leaders in Mexico, Lebanon, Egypt, the Philippines, and over 12 additional nations discussing exactly this. What can we expect next from AI and how will it impact what we often refer to as "The Future of Work?"


Clearly, like all disruptive technologies across human history, this technology too will impact what we like to commonly refer to as "work." All work, no matter how complex or simple, is predicated by one thing; learning. Much has been written and speculated on how AI will impact education. How do we prepare our children and students to work in this fast approaching (candidly,.. it's here) world? What will the role of faculty look like in five years? How will AI impact schools? Isn't it "cheating" to use AI in any assignment? As leaders and policy struggle to keep pace, the drive to further implement AI keeps taking massive leaps. The next iteration of our human landscape is being terraformed as we speak. How can our schools and teachers possibly hope to keep pace?


In December, I was on a long drive with a close colleague of mine discussing these very topics. I want to share with all of you now what I shared with him and the other educational leaders in that van. You may disagree. You may get upset. I may of course be quite wrong. But, I'm thinking back now to my 9-year old self and watching Colossus teach Guardian in seconds what takes our human systems so many years. If you watch the movie you'll see it too. It's not the threat of human domination that stuck with me. It was the sheer efficiency and power of teaching and learning that Colossus brought to Guardian as the two systems merged to create their own language of communication. I saw Guardian as an inferior system, like a child. Colossus was its teacher, patiently repeating commands, again, and again, and again...until Guardian processed that objective. Then, Colossus moved to the next learning outcome ascending across a vast curriculum with endless patience.


Currently, our education systems leave behind generations of students. Despite decades of efforts, our success rates remain challenged to say the least. Equity, diversity, and inclusion remain laudable goals alongside technology integration, empathy and mental health support systems, and unprecedented (yet still insufficient) funding. We also know that cognitive attainment is not the major barrier to learning and success when compared to life complexity. K-12 school attainment and graduation rates struggle to move beyond state-mandated goals. Community and State college systems celebrate 35-40% graduation rates (as they should in their "open-door" systems). Universities pre-select populations across complex admissions models, yielding grad rates in 60-70% typically. From a national economic and GDP perspective, states and nations know these rates will not compete globally. And everyone is asking, how can we further leverage AI?


Educational institutions often separate their enrollment populations across "risk categories." Many use prior GPA scores, socio-economic data, and a wide array of analytics to predict student success. Some are even leveraging far more complex platforms moving toward "hyper-personalization." You can check out my previous articles on this topic of what I call "ultra-personalization." In this new world the more adept institutions are building "intelligent systems" which look at every learning object, for every student, every day. These systems seek to serve exactly the right object, to the right learner, at the right time. These are not just "cognitive systems" looking at prior learning. They also gather data across social media platforms, purchasing habits, and credit scores. They look for financial and emotional stress. What about privacy Dr. Dunnivant you may ask? Some designs allow users to "opt out" offering varying levels. Others are still navigating those complex waters. But in every case, the more the system knows about you, the more you are willing to reveal, the more likely you are to succeed. Feel threatened by that? Opt out. It's all in the algorithm. That "magic black box" somewhere out there buried in the system driving everything. And this is where I draw to a close.


Whether we like it or not, the economies of scale possible in an AI-driven educational framework of immeasurable patience and adaptability for each learner are inevitable. Herding students into rooms where we expect them to learn the same content, in the same way, at the same pace, is going the way of the old overhead projector in a flat (and now flexible) screen landscape. It's highly likely that the "bottom third" of those students in these classes, those historically dropping out (mostly underserved in origin), will be the earlier targets of AI-mediated and "ultra-personalized" teaching and learning. In this approach, an "AI agent" or avatar might be their "learning advocate," guiding them both inside and outside the classroom. Curriculum pathways will turn increasingly recursive, allowing not only multiple attempts, but an algorithm driven array of different approaches to offering those learning outcomes. When life complexity issues pop up, learners will be connected to mental health counselors (yes, some virtual), foundations and financial institutions across a taxonomy of financial support. Whatever the barrier to your learning, you will have a relentless advocate working with you personally to take it down, and whatever pops up next.


This terrifies some of my colleagues. In such a system they fear that motivated educator like we see in the movies, inspiring new generations through passionate lecture and discourse, will be available only to the academic elite back at the top of that success ladder. They fear that the broader educational goals of the interdisciplinary sciences, general education, and citizenship will be lost. I disagree. Remember that "magic black box," that algorithm? That's where I see the future of teachers and faculty, curating not only the learning content inside the box, but the construct and weight of the values that are interwoven across that curriculum (again, see my previous articles in this blog). More importantly, modern educational systems and their leadership often represent barriers to the faculty and teachers in doing their very jobs. The load on educators today is one of immense scale, increasingly complex expectation, and almost unbearable load. I see AI as the next great tool of those teachers, helping them to do what they desire most-enable student success.


Take a peek at Colossus: The Forbin Project. Watch Colossus teaching Guardian. I taught for over 30 years personally, in both K-12 and higher education. I still teach today, largely in educational leadership for three universities. This is what I'm telling my students, current and future educators and educational leaders. I'm not sure what the future of teaching and learning will be. No one is. But I do believe that Artificial Intelligence holds immense potential. As educators, and parents, we'll have to fight to maintain control of that "magic box." What's inside the box will have a common core across our nation (and hopefully our world). It will also contain unique differences that preserve our regional values and beliefs. The "curation" of that box and all it contains should be a collective effort of community, educators, business and industry, and all stakeholders, representing those beautiful differences. This is the absolute power of culture. But that's another whole topic and a different book of mine my friend and colleagues. Happy 2024!



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