Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Mary Meaker's tech report 'AI & Universities' is right but delusional

Mary Meaker’s tech reports were always received with a degree of reverence. Her technology  PPTs were data rich, sharp, clear and were seen as a springboard for action. This latest report is the opposite. Data-rich but delusional. 

Curiously, her data is right but her focus on Higher Education as the driver of growth and social change is ridiculously utopian. The institutional nature of Higher Education is so deeply rooted in the campus model, high costs and an almost instinctive hatred of technology, that it cannot deliver what she advises. She is therefore both right and wrong. Right in her recommendations, wrong in her prediction. Higher Education’s reaction to the AI storm was to focus largely on plagiarism, with a pile of negativity expressed thinly veiled as ‘ethics’.

The research base has shifted out of Universities into companies that have market capitalisations in their trillions, huge cash reserves, oodles of talent and the ability to deliver. Higher education at the elite end has huge endowments but remains inefficient, expensive, has a crisis of relevance and is wedded to a model that cannot deliver on her recommendations.

Where she is right in is pointing towards the US advantage, set by Vannervmar Bush in the 1940s, where industry, Higher Education and Government were seen as a combined engine for growth and chance. 

Vannervar Bush's Vision

Vannervar Bush (1890 - 1974) was the Dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, a founder of Raytheon and the top administrator for the US during World War II. He widened research to include partnerships between government, the private sector and universities, a model that survives to this day in the US. He claimed that his leadership qualities came from his family who were sea captains and whalers. He was also a practical man with inventions and dozens of patents to his name. In addition to his Differential Analyzer, he was an administrator and visionary who not only created the environment for much of US technological development during and after World War II leading to the internet but also gave us a powerful and influential vision for what became the World Wide Web.

When World War II came along he headed up Roosevelt’s National Defense Research Committee and oversaw The Manhattan Project among many others. Basic science, especially physics, he saw as the bedrock of innovation. It was technological innovation, he thought, that led to better work conditions and more “study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden for the common man for past ages”. His post war report saw the founding of the National Science Foundation, and Bush’s triad model of government, private sector and Universities became the powerhouse for America’s post war technological success. Research centres such as Bell labs, RAND Corporation, SRI and Xerox PARC were bountiful in their innovation, and all contributed to that one huge invention - the internet.

Bush was fascinated with the concept of augmented memory and in his wonderful 1945 article As We May Think, described the idea of a ‘Memex’. It was a vision he came back to time and time again; the storage of books, records and communications, an immense augmentation of human memory that could be accessed quickly and flexibly - basically the internet and world wide web.

Fundamental to his vision was the associative trail, to create new trails of content by linking them together in chained sequences of events, with personal contributions as side trails. Here we have the concept of hyperlinking and personal communications. This he saw as mimicking the associate nature of the human brain. He saw users calling up this indexed, motherlode of augmenting knowledge with just a few keystrokes. A process that would accelerate progress in research and science.

More than this he realised that users would be able to personally create and add knowledge and resources to the system, such as text, comments and photos, linked to main trails or in personal side trails - thus predicting concepts such as social media. He was quite precise about creating, say a personal article, sharing it and linking it to other articles, anticipating blogging. The idea of creating, connecting, annotating and sharing knowledge, on an encyclopedic scale anticipated Wikipedia and other knowledge bases. Lawyers, Doctors, Historians and other professionals would have access to the knowledge they needed to do their jobs more effectively. 

In a book published 22 years later, Science Is Not Enough (1967), he relished the idea that recent technological advances in electronics, such as photocells, transistors, magnetic tape, solid-state circuits and cathode ray tubes have brought his vision closer to reality. He saw in erasable, magnetic tape the possibility of erasure and correction, namely editing, as an important feature of his system of augmentation. Even more remarkable was his prophetic ideas around voice control and user-generated content, anticipating the personal assistants so familiar to us today. He even anticipated the automatic creation of trails, anticipating that AI and machine learning may also play a part in our interaction with such knowledge-bases.

What is astonishing is the range and depth of his vision, coupled with a realistic vision on how technology could be combined with knowledge to accelerate progress, all in the service of the creative brain. It was an astounding thought experiment.

AI and growth

AI is now fulfilling Bush’s vision in moving our relationship with knowledge beyond search into dialogue, multimodal capabilities and accelerated teaching and learning, along with the very real implementation of the extended mind.

But the power has shifted out of the University system into commerce. Higher Education has retreated from that role and the research entities such as Bell Labs and Xerox Parc are no longer relevant. She is right in seeing the US power ahead of everyone on AI and productivity. The danger is that this produces an even lazier Higher Education sector that doesn’t adapt but become even more of an expensive rite of passage for the rich. 


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