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FANG of the Apocalypse (part 2)

By Dr John Töns

At FANG’s birth nations were already well and truly on the path of embracing FANG; naively it was assumed that humanity would remain in control. We could not imagine that a child of our creation, the child of economic rationalism and neo-liberalism could possibly go feral but that is just what is happening now.

UNESCO may be regarded as the unwitting accomplice. In the nineteen seventies UNESCO began to develop what was to become the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Its objective was and is benign. UNESCO argued that ‘in order to understand and properly interpret the inputs, processes and outcomes of education systems from a global perspective, it is vital to ensure that data are comparable.’ Given that one of UNESCO’s roles is to give all people access to quality education it needed some way of measuring education outcomes in order to allocate resources fairly. The logic underpinning a universal standard cannot be faulted. Given the importance of the so-called knowledge economy it becomes a basic human right to ensure that everyone has the same life chances that education offers. Hence by 2011 the ISCED had become a globally recognised instrument designed to compile and compare education statistics both nationally and internationally. Had it remained just that, FANG would not have been able to get a foothold but never discount the potential of the ‘free market’ to distort and pervert a perfectly reasonable and valuable tool.

For as UNESCO was developing its tool in most developed countries education was becoming commodified; educational institutions were opened up to what was referred to as the market forces of competition. But if students were now to be treated as ‘customers’ then those students needed to be able to compare the choices available to them. One needs some sort of standard, some sort of means to make an informed choice regarding which school, and which university to attend. As far as educational institutions were concerned, they were now open to the forces of competition – their survival depended on convincing would-be students that they offered the best possible education. The problem had been that there was no objective standard against which education institutions could be assessed. This in turn opened up a splendid opportunity for not just the ISCED but for a host of other statistics that educators had been collecting. Statistics create that illusion of an objective, evidence based, and data driven standard. But those of us who have read their Mark Twain and know that there are Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.

In the byzantine world of educational statistics, it is difficult to summarise the myriad ways in which instruments like the ISCED are an inappropriate basis for selecting an educational institution. Perhaps one example will suffice. In 2008 Australia introduced NAPLAN, it tests students’ knowledge/skills in literacy and numeracy. To many of us assessing someone’s literacy is simple and straight forward.

But what literacy do we want to assess? What domain of literacy? Science, or Art, or Emotional, or Philosophical? What primary mode of expression Spoken, or written, or music, or dance, or text message? What context Classroom, or work group, or role play, or class circle, or workshop, or playground? Who should provide the criteria for the assessment and who should do the assessment? For what purpose? In whose interest?

Currently, primary and secondary schooling in Australia has placed Literacy as perhaps the most important educational outcome for students. Schools and school systems will be judged, are already being judged, according to the (supposed) Literacy of their students, despite the acknowledgement that schools may not be major contributors to the Literacy development of many students who provide the data when they interact with the NAPLAN tests.

One thing we do know: NAPLAN does not measure Literacy. And further to this, Literacy cannot be measured because of its multidimensional nature and contextual variability.

Literacy cannot be measured, but it can be assessed. It can be assessed in that descriptions of its practice within schooling structures and behaviour can be observed and/or recorded and their propensity to encourage or inhibit Literacy development commented on within a remedial context. Such a description would be neither competitive nor comparative nor judgmental, and to be useful would need to be clear about both the successes and possible limitations of the school experiences embedded in the particular literacy experiences of its program. Not its program as described in its written description by the school, probably deeply embedded within abstract descriptions of ‘constructs’ and ‘abilities’, but its interactive program embedded in the embodied social and language behaviour within the total context of students’ school experience.

What NAPLAN is doing is defining Literacy as being those skills it is testing. At the heart of NAPLAN is a circular argument that literacy is whatever their tests are testing! But that very definition suggests that the only literacy we should value is that for which NAPLAN tests. As a result, parents go to their local newsagent and purchase practice tests in the belief that this is how they improve junior’s literacy. They select their child’s school based on NAPLAN results.

The downside of the reliance on NAPLAN as our education gold standard is that we do not value and encourage the experimentation that children naturally engage in. The message we are sending to our children is that there is just one literacy that is important. Of course, there will be those who rebel against that stunted form of literacy. They will continue to experiment with different ways of expressing their ideas, different ways of making sense of the human condition but they are swimming against the tide.

On the face of it this seems to have very little to do with FANG. It is here that we have to dig just that little bit deeper than Alan Eustace, a vice-president of Google, asserts that a top performing engineer is worth ‘300 times or more than the average.’ Bill Gates has likewise asserted that Microsoft’s success is due to the fact that they have recruited some of the best engineers in the world. When President Putin asserts that ‘Artificial intelligence is the future… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become ruler of the world’ he is making the case for training and recruiting more and more engineers. Our Education Ministers have heeded that clarion call and have pushed for more resources to be poured into the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In the light of that push, any concerns about literacy is irrelevant – the sort of literacy that NAPLAN assesses is all that is needed. Those disciplines that traditionally make up a liberal education are seen as mere frippery.

This brings us right back to the beginning. Amazon recruited bright, young engineers. These young people had undoubted technological skills. But technology may be regarded as a binary subject for on the whole it is concerned with black and white reasoning: something either works or it doesn’t. Shades of grey are seen merely in terms of soft porn with no bearing on the real world. Such a narrow educational focus only serves to make FANG and its myriad offspring more powerful. It means that we will be shaping a world in which the authority of technology is absolute. In Australia this was evidenced last year by Centrelink’s use of Robodebt recovery programme. Instead of being embarrassed at the identified short-comings the government is pressing on regardless. Influenced no doubt by the fact that the government has identified potential savings of $300 million.

I believe that Vladimir Putin may well be right that Machine Intelligence is the future that awaits us. However, right now we are faced with a choice. We can either roll over and let FANG have its way or take charge of our future. Rousseau sparked off a political revolution by asking whether it was possible to develop a form of government that takes ‘men as they are and laws as they might be.’ We can use FANG to shape our digital revolution. We can set those smart youngsters the task to design algorithms that help us to design policies that create a world that is guided by fairness. To do that they will need to understand much more than what is offered by STEM subjects. They will need to collaborate and work with people who are as clever and passionate as they are in the many other forms of human endeavour. They will soon learn that the simple concept of creating a fairer world is devilishly complicated. They will need to explore how we can create a stable and just world when humanity is divided by perfectly reasonable yet incompatible, religious, moral and philosophical doctrines. They need to understand the assumptions and values on which their algorithms are based.

Thus far this argument has centred on the risks posed by leaving the development of the 4th industrial revolution to people whose education has been focused on STEM subjects. We can readily acknowledge that the benefits of a liberal education should not be underestimated. However, this is not where the real threat of FANG lies. The real threat lies in the fact that FANG is currently being exposed to the world of quantum computing.

Quantum computers are not merely super-fast ways in which data is processed. Rather, it heralds what may be regarded as the 5th industrial revolution where we at last have the tools to make sense of and understand the quantum universe. Thus far we have developed tools that have enabled our sense of vision to ‘see’ not just ultraviolet but thanks to infrared spectroscopy we have access to the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is light with a longer wavelength and lower frequency than visible light. It is that capacity that has enabled us to gain a greater understanding of the universe. Quantum computing will enable us to do the same at the molecular level where quantum physics rules. Corporations are already exploring the potential of quantum computers and they have the potential to be a tremendous benefit in all fields of human endeavour, but if there is one thing that we should have learnt from our primitive dabbling with AI is that there is always a price to pay.

As a political philosopher I can see tremendous potential for FANG or artificial intelligence. But I also recognise the risks. We have been thinking and arguing about what it means to live in a just and fair society for at least ten thousand years. Political philosophy attempts to describe the policies that we need to implement to create a better society, but to get any degree of consensus on what constitutes a better society has eluded us. This is brought out by the problems the UK is having with Brexit. For those determined to leave the EU Brexit is a solution to their problems. For those classified as Remainers they see EU membership as the solution to the same problems the Brexiteers cite as their reason for leaving. By now this is probably an insoluble conundrum, both sides have dug in and are unlikely to give any ground. But consider what would have happened if prior to even having a referendum an independent set of AI boffins had run a simulation that factored in all the possible future scenarios that could be imagined. It would not have yielded a fool-proof result, but it may, just may have given the UK Parliament to pause and think before they embarked on conducting a referendum.

The clock may have struck thirteen, but it is not too late. Whilst not everyone can be a political philosopher we can all be given the skills to think critically and analytically about the impact FANG and its many children is having on our lives. Irrespective of age we need to develop our natural capacity for critical thinking. As long as we encourage people to develop their aptitude for critical thinking, we just may be able to break in these four horsemen of the digital age and even guide them into the new and wonderful world of quantum physics for everyone.

Link to Part 1.

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  1. New England Cocky

    An excellent second episode of this series of articles. Thank you.

  2. Jack Russell

    Critical thinking. Isn’t that the one thing that’s not at, or anywhere near, the top of the subject list in our primary and secondary education curriculums – if at all? if you think about who stands to gain the most from that, then it’s not hard to begin compiling a list that points to why it isn’t. “Resistance is futile,” say the bosses to the drones …

  3. john tons

    With reference to NAPLAN that has been taken from an article (in preparation) written by Dr Noel Wilson and myself. For those who want to follow up the problems with NAPLAN have a look here chapter 19.

  4. David

    Education is about becoming yourself not some pathetic, aspirational, industrial NCO. AIMN like to take the lead in real education and demand Assange’s release!

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