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My Turn: School choice and the future of intelligence

For the Monitor
Published: 3/25/2017 12:10:04 AM

The 21st century is going to be interesting for our species. For millennia human minds (whether Denisov, Neanderthal or Sapiens) have been unchallenged on this planet. No competitor could outthink us. Our only existential threats were mindless: diseases and large-scale climate events like asteroid hits or Ice Ages.

Now, we are in a much more complex situation. Our combined minds, working through markets, and accumulated knowledge give us power over nonsentient threats. We have beaten many major diseases, ended overall famine and have begun to live on power that doesn’t come from the biosphere (we are the only species that can expand without killing off others, if we choose).

If we chose to spend just a fraction of the resources that we waste on the endless religious wars, we could deflect the extinction asteroids (Google “Hayabusa”), even make the climate cooler or warmer as needed, and restore extinct species. We could also beat aging and cancer, though we seem to care more about re-enacting the medieval Crusades.

But we are no longer the only intelligences. Machines can easily beat us at chess, Go and electoral politics (face it, your “opinions” come from cat memes on Facebook – look at the 2016 candidates). Algorithms are not only faster and better at any given task, but can reproduce billions of copies in the time it takes us to learn to ride in a self-driving car.

This is not inherently a bad thing. Artificial intelligence, like any technology, could be a way to grow our species to the next level. All we have to do is make sure that there aren’t any nontransparent organizations with the ability to print money, drain off billions in resources into black budgets and make paranoid surveillance/attack artificial intelligences – oops.

(For those of you wondering whether I’m talking about the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, the KGB, Google or Facebook, what difference does it make?)

Suffice to say that we now live in the most complex world in human history. Our children are going to have to figure out a system of 8-plus billion people, more than that number of computers, all working to increase the complexity of software and the accumulated petabytes of inhuman knowledge. They will be dealing with the old problems of war and terrorism, but on many more levels. And they will also have to decide how to fix the climate, how to protect the environment, how to handle genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, video game addiction (that one is simple, just start making addictive educational games), and how to maintain their individuality while still being connected.

And to prepare our young minds for these challenges, we lock most of them in bad reproductions of 1890s school buildings (but with fewer windows), and make them sit for unhealthy periods of time. To eliminate any advantage we could get from human diversity, we insist that all students learn the same things in the same way, at the same speed.

Yet we already have all the tools we need to retool our minds. The Internet lets every child learn from the best minds in each field, information is available for free in any number of copies, and we put huge amounts of money into education.

New Hampshire schools will spend about $18,000 per pupil this year, more than most private schools charge. “The per pupil amount of all expenditures – operating, tuition, transportation, equipment, construction, interest and non-K-12 expenditures is $17,648.76.” That was for 2015-2016.

So there is plenty of money to fund a human “intelligence explosion” to rival the machines. All we need do is give the money back to parents so that they can choose from competing schools and other educational technologies. Many countries already do this, which is why their primary and secondary education systems have been outperforming ours for decades. The Netherlands, Denmark, Australia and many other countries all have extensive voucher systems.

Or we can continue our present system, where a tiny percentage of students get private educations that prepare them to be creative and independent. Where the vast majority are stuck in schools that teach them to sit passively at desks, perform outdated tasks that prepare them for jobs that haven’t existed for decades, and wait for the algorithms to tell them what to do.

(Bill Walker lives in Plainfield.)

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