Monday, March 28, 2016

I’m a 'storyteller' – yawn!

I’m increasingly introduced, or sharing a platform with people, who claim they’re a ‘storyteller’. I’m just perplexed, as I have no idea what this means. I know lots of people who can tell a damn good story down the pub and can hold a group entranced, but they’d never have the cheek to call themselves ‘storytellers’. When I try to tease out what this storytelling actually means, I find that it’s usually a synonym for being an underemployed extrovert.

Stories about what?
For one, it simply begs the question, ‘Stories about what?’ Now that you’ve told me you’re some sort of Homer, what have you got to say? I’ve known lots of oddballs who tell great stories but I wouldn’t trust them to hold a stick for two minutes, never mind see their stories as sage advice. This is to confuse form with substance.

Cock and bullshit
I’ve seen umpteen ‘futurists’ cull stories from the web and string them together to form story-based talks. It’s often cock and bullshit. Even worse, are those who present theories based on a flimsy list of words starting with the letter “C”, as if the real world (as opposed to their limited vocabulary) is really that alliterative. The word ‘creativity’ will inevitably appear, that most hollow of concepts, but so will collaboration, critical thinking, community, character, connectedness….

Plural of story is not data
Now let me turn to another ‘storytelling school of thought’. In education and training, there’s plenty who profess, as if it were a Copernican revelation, that ‘it’s all about storytelling’. Don’t give me THAT story. We have, since Socrates and Plato, been warned about the dangers of storytelling. Its tendency to tell tall tales, romanticise, exaggerate, over-structure into a beginning, middle and a happy end, come to unwarranted conclusions and be used as a form of fictional propaganda. Me – when I really want to learn something - I like it straight.  I like good research, straight to the point, concise and evidenced writing. Stories can get in the way. The ‘storytellers’ often peddle tales without substance, evidence or data. The plural of story is not data.

Storytelling s marketing
I’m OK with stories, in their place, but they’re not ‘everything’. They may even encourage the sort of long-form lecturing that plagues education and training. Sure, tell a narrative or story if that’s helpful, but the mantra, that good teaching is ALL about storytelling, is a caricature of the many methods one has to employ to teach – and learn. Stories that have gone wrong, as they were untrue and dangerous include; learning styles, L/R brain theory, Dale's cone, whole word teaching, NLP, Myers Briggs, Maslow, Kirkpatrick and so on. Many of these are ‘stories’ have some triangle or concept grid, that is easy to tell and sell. The same old stories, told again and again and again….

Learning is far too complex a business to be reduced to the idea of ‘stories’. And before you accuse me of just having told a ‘story’ – it’s not, it’s a ‘rant’ – there’s a difference.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Amazing, mind-blowing ‘people’ possibilities in VR and AR

When I demo VR to people they often struggle to see its potential application in the real world. One dimension they often miss is its potential to let you interact with other people - it’s social dimension. Far from being socially isolating, it may be socially liberating. The possibilities are mind-blowing.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Remember that Facebook bought Oculus for 2.3 billion dollars, when it had not a single customer. Why? Zuckerberg saw the social possibilities of multiplayer VR. He could see that Facebook, the world’s most successful social network, could be transformed by this technology. VR may be the future of social networking. Rather than the flat, text and pics medium we see today, we’ll be able to meet, socialise, do business, experience entertainment and learn in 3D spaces with anyone, anyplace at anytime. Multiplayer VR is already here. You can play games or train in a multiplayer environment right now.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Microsoft is also working on the AR angle with ‘holoportation’. The ability for you and anyone else to holoport to any place at any time really is on the horizon. Imagine teleporting from one place to another. If two people can wear their HoloLens they can see each other as being present in the same space. You have to see this to believe it. First you need to capture you’re body, so that it can be reconstructed online. We can all be created as virtual people,  compressed and reconstructed in the other person’s space, in real time. Note that with AR anyone can be seen in the room with you, as if they were standing there. This works through ‘live capture’.
Within VR or AR worlds you need to be able to move around, interact and do things. In VR, controllers such as the Xbox games controller, that comes with the Oculus Rift, are already shipping. Other devices such as the Oculus Touch are in development, along with haptic gloves and suits. You can already move around, manipulate objects and feel them in you hands.
In AR, Microsoft’s Bluetooth controller is a simple one button device that you strap to your fingers. Remember that voice recognition and is likely to play a huge role in interactivity and, of course, social interaction, along with gestures. Don’t forget the possibilities with the headtracking itself, as you know where the person is looking and can place sounds, other people and objects anywhere you want, dynamically, in relation to that movement.
As others see us
Weirdly, you can also put yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their point of view. A doctor sees as a patient and experience what it is like to have a visual, hearing or physical disability. A teacher can experience what the learner sees and does. A coach can experience what a sport’s person is experiencing during practice. A man can experience what a woman sees, does and experiences and vice-versa. This opens up possibilities in training of sexual harassment and equal opps. You can experience what it is like to be of any other gender, race, age or disability in any other place. There have already been experiments in experiencing life as a refugee.
Global experience
Virtual travel with a mountaineer or astronaut is possible. You can fly with a bird. You can actually be on the Moon or Mars. You can experience being in a concert or sports event and be with there on the field or stage. More than this, new forms of film and games will allow you to be inside the film or game and have other people in your team right there with you. You will be able to interact with these other people, just as you would in real face-to-face situations, whether they are AI controlled avatars or real people.
Global classroom
In learning, we really can have one-to-one tuition, as if the person was actually there, with you, in the same space. The Global Classroom becomes a possibility, with teachers and learners getting together, no matter where they are on the planet. Groups of people can learn together, even in other created VR worlds, such as outer space, below the ocean, at the atomic level, inside the body – anywhere. Imagine MOOCs where all of this is possible and millions can be taught by the best teachers using the best created worlds, as if you were actually there.

In both VR and AR, you will be able to connect with relatives, work colleagues, friends, teachers and other learners at any time, in any place. The world is literally in your living room or wherever you choose it to be. This is more than the global village it is the global room.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Forget LEGO: Minecraft & open-source AI heralds new era for kids

AI has been around in computer games for a long time – back to the early 1950s. It received a boost when games such as checkers and chess were computerized, then again when agents within shoot ‘em up and adventure games had ‘intelligence’ in terms of their skills and behavior. Much of this was quite simple AI but a new development promises to introduce AI into gaming in a way that blows all of this out of the water. Microsoft, who own Minecraft, will allow researchers and gamers to use the open-source AIX software to introduce AI.
This is a real breakthrough, as it gets us away from device fetish around things like the BBC Micro:bit. It makes the Micro:bit look like the 1970s idea it actually is. Kids use computers and consoles, not circuit boards. This is AI being outsourced and used by millions, not pokey little bits of hardware that are difficult to use. Putting AI into the hands of millions of smart young people, and researchers, will accelerate no-end of useful and as yet unimagined uses.
Microsoft were not the first to release open source AI software, Google have been there, along with others. Nevertheless, when Minecraft was sold to Microsoft, its Xbox sales rocketed. My mate Chris van der Kuhl was behind all of this and is still a key player in the delivery of Minecraft. Having changed the entire games landscape and captured the imagination of million of young people, it is the perfect platform for the introduction of AI. This is what will change the world, not tinkering around with computer science curricula in schools or sending them gadgets, months late. You’ll be able to embed AI in characters, things and processes, running experiments and introducing a whole new level of interactivity within the already highly, interactive Minecraft environment. Millions of imaginations will be able to embed and run AI, at no cost.
But what really makes this sing is the open-ended nature of Minecraft. That gives the AI room to develop and breath. AI in its many forms (remember that it far from being one thing) can be used in hundreds of different ways within these environments. It is not all about creating characters who behave like humans. It’s also about new forms of AI that do things humans can’t do. Embedding intelligence in objects, perceptual intelligence, predictive intelligence and, the big one, the ability for such systems to learn from their own actions. Machine intelligence is self-generating. It gets better as it plays with others and plays itself. Using AI within an open, 3D creation environment is (yes I will say it) a game changer. With Minecraft in VR, it gets even more exciting.

Forget LEGO. That’s a bunch of tired, old execs still stuck in the world of over-priced, coloured plastic blocks, promoting Disney, Star Wars and other worn-out franchises  The new world of gaming is upon us with Minecraft and AI. That’s what excites kids today and this opens up a new era of intelligent making, building and creating. The world literally is their AI oyster.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Will Amazon be the `Netflix’ of learning?

Amazon often surprises. When it moved out of books only into anything and everything, we were surprised. When it started to deliver cloud services, we were surprised. When it said it wanted to open bookstores, we were surprised. But the idea of Amazon being a global education provider – that’s a shocker.
Notoriously secretive, we can only guess what they’re up to. But this much we know. They’ve got a ‘wait list’ for their new educational service. That’s an interesting little marketing play. Keep it secret, keep it scarce – then launch. They bought TenMarks a couple of years ago, use predictive analytics to sell stuff and have the ability to deliver a super-massive global service if they so desire.
Amazon have been playing around with TV, with Amazon Prime. But they produced Alpha Four about four Senators - a dud. Netflix used data, but much more fine-grained, and produced House of Cards. Data analysis, in itself, is not enough. You need data plus experts. That's why Amazon made their mistake - they were too cocky about the data alone. See this TED talk for more. 
Role of AI?
I’ve written tons on the future role of AI in teaching and learning. I’ve invested in it, am building my own company in the area, talk on the subject, write on the subject, so I’m a convert. But I’m not Jeff Bezos and I don’t have a global platform that is as good as anyone at delivering stuff with consummate ease to the entire planet. Jeff does.
Knowing Amazon, there will be some predictive, recommendation engine, review, ratings and an interface that works. They are the masters of ‘ease of use’. They’re bandying about the word ‘open’, which is heartening but could mean anything. An open publishing platform could be interesting but the OER world is full of teacher-created content that lies dead in the unloved repositories of reusable content. If that is their strategy – a sort of share and swap service for resources, with ratings, - it will fail. Delivering smart, interactive e-books could be interesting. Add the magic dust of AI, it has a real chance.
Textbook wipeout?
The textbook market is ripe for a Wikipedia-like cleanup. They’re often poorly written, linear, text-heavy, media unfriendly, quickly out of date and far too expensive. If they have a pop at this market, I for one, will cheer them on. The very concept of a textbook is under attack and it is well on its way to becoming obsolete.
Polish experiment
There's already been nationwide work done in Poland on OER textbooks, the first country to politically support an open-textbook strategy. The government funded Creative Commons Licensed textbooks that can be translated, reused and adapted in primary and secondary schools. The huge savings for both parents and government are obvious, running to around €200 million. They plan to continue the program until 2020. Other places to watch are S Africa and Brazil. The question is whether the clout of a global brand, like Amazon, will help. The evidence suggests that private sector delivery does help. Most OER initiatives fail through lack of business and marketing skills, and remain unloved and unused. Amazon may just provide the infrastructure, marketing and skills to turn this into a global phenomenon.
I wrote some time back about the possibility of a Netflix in education. I feel that we’re moving closer to this, with the rise of AI and adaptive learning. What’s missing is the organization with the chops to pull this off. There are a few around but it really comes down to the big five – Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Google. It is often claimed that IBM’s Tom Watson, who sold a LMS to Hitler, said that there world would only need five computers. He said no such thing. Like most quotes from Einstein and others at educational conferences it’s bullshit. Yet it may, despite its false providence, turn out to be true. These guys do have a grip on the market, and enough cash, to make them almost invincible. As they say, watch this webspace.

Remember this date – 12 02 2012 - the day our species lost to AI - but won

This is worried look of Lee Sedol and he was in the match of his life - he lost. But it wasn't Lee who lost, it was us all or is it really a win for us, the certaors of AlphaGo? The Human v machine sparring that has been going on for some time with checkers, Chess and Jeopardy, were featherweight contests. This was the Big Fight and we, as a species, got thumped. There’s a new breed of champion in the ring and it’s not just smart, it’s a superfast learner, even its own teacher. It’s eats up human expertise for breakfast, then the real game begins, as it uses this experience to play itself, as it’s the only opponent worth playing. Having learned from us, it sucks our experts dry, then transcends their abilities to boldly go where no brain has gone before.
Momentous moment
This is a momentous moment. In less than 2.5 years, since Google snapped up Deepmind for a mere half billion dollars, 2500 years of human experience and expertise at GO has been trounced. But this is only the start. Software that learns is exponentially more powerful than software that has to be written by humans. Given the huge processing power of Google Cloud Services, AlphaGo has one of the greatest engines on the planet under its hood. It also has some of the best algorithms and that’s what matters. Machine learning algorithms are like small Gods. Free from the tyranny of time and space, speed is no limit. They can learn faster than any of us. These algorithms are the new DNA of progress. This machine moves beyond teaching and teaches itself. That’s essentially what humans do as they become expert learners, few in the later years reply any longer on teachers, as we’ve learned to learn for ourselves. AI just moves to abandoning the teacher faster.
A bit of history
Throughout our history as a species we have always benefited from the delegation of the mundane. This has largely been achieved through technology. We conquered the planet through technology. First through stone then metal tools, needles for clothing, tools for agriculture and so on. Then we invented machines that to did the manual work and we moved from the fields to factories. Then we mechanised the factories and moved towards mental work. Now we’re delegating the drudgery of some of that mental work to machines or, more accurately – AI, even more accurately to machine learning.
Teaching and learning
Amid all the hubris that surrounds education and teaching, there’s a deeper problem. Parents know it, learners know it, even teachers, lecturers and trainers know it. Performance has plateaued and everyone is getting a little fraught. Politicians, driven on by the poor foundations, and therefore learning tower of PISA results, demand more testing. Parents, the most conservative of lobbyists, demand more schooling. Teachers scream ‘enough already – we’re exhausted’. Well, isn’t it about time we looked for the sort of solutions that gave us the industrial and information revolutions of the past? Can’t machines solve the problem of teaching?
Teaching trumped by learning?
Could teaching be trumped by a learning machine? Are we beginning to glimpse the possibility of machines that teach themselves to teach? They learn what works, what doesn’t and deliver ever better performance. We see the embryonic evidence for this in adaptive learning systems, that are truly algorithmic, and do use machine learning, to improve as they deliver. The more students they teach, the better they get. They even tech themselves. This is not science fiction. This is real AI, in real software, delivering real courses, in real institutions. The future has been here for some time it’s just not distributed.
Teaching free like search?
Imagine what will happen when these super-teachers are commoditised, delivered from super fast cloud-services and let loose on the web? Teaching and learning will be as free and accessible as Google search. You will not only be able to find things with ease, you’ll be able to learn them with ease. We may see dramatic rises in performance among learners, right across the board, as such systems will be far more sensitive to individual needs, even learning difficulties. Who is likely to deliver such as service? Well Amazon are on the march, Gates has been seriously funding this stuff but Google is the front runner.
Future without teachers?
This may see hopelessly utopian. But could we have a future without teachers? Why not? Teaching is essentially being a conduit. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Wouldn’t academics really prefer to do pure research and not teach? Wouldn’t most teachers prefer not to have to mark anything and avoid the stress of the classroom? Couldn’t we dispense with teaching and just have learning?
Probable, improbable or impossible?
Agricultural workers were largely mechanised out of the process by machines. factory workers by robots, secretaries by word processors and It looks likely that we will see the obliteration of drivers, cabbies and truck drivers, through driverless cars. No one predicted that! There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that many professions, even white collar, middle-class professions, may be replaced by smart AI. So what’s so special about teaching? If we can teach millions, of not hundreds of millions at cents per learner, isn’t that desirable?
Remember this date

So remember this date – 12 02 2012 – it sounds almost providential. It may go down in history as the day we lost our several million year long reign as Champions of the World, not to the super-smart Frankenstein we created, but to the machine teachers who help us learn to be better humans.