Ray Kurzweil: Memorization is For Robots. People Learn By Doing.
As neuroscience, cognitive science, computer programming, and artificial intelligence progress, we’re understanding better and better how we learn.
What’s the Big Idea?
What do elementary pedagogy and artificial intelligence have in common? Leaders in both fields have abandoned the study of the trees for that of the forest.
From preschool through high school, progressive educators have long advocated for project-based learning as against old-school rote memorization. The goal is transferability of knowledge, as opposed to narrow, domain-based learning. Young children, for example, master the principles of addition faster, and can apply them more broadly, by grouping real-world objects than by manipulating numbers on paper.
A similar shift is happening in the field of artificial intelligence. Scientists are significantly improving machine-thinking by reverse-engineering human cognition. According to Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in voice recognition technology and the author of How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, the future of artificial intelligence is in pattern recognition. The basic algorithms of human thought, Kurzweil says, just aren’t that complicated. From an observation about the weather to a sophisticated joke, cognition at every level operates according to a few simple principles. Researchers have gotten lost, he says, in the diversity and complexity of individual neurons and are missing the bigger picture.
Video: Ray Kurzweil on project-based education
What’s the Significance?
While he believes that our destiny is to outsource much of what we’ve traditionally called “thinking” to machines, Kurzweil is a strong advocate for education. Not surprisingly, he rejects rote learning (“we have machines for that”) in favor of project-based learning at every level, from Kindergarten through graduate school. At Singularity University, which Kurzweil co-founded, students form small groups to tackle enormous problems like climate change. Whether or not a given project succeeds isn’t exactly the point – the point is that in struggling to come up with creative solutions, the students learn powerful problem-solving approaches they’ll be able to build upon, to develop more sophisticated forms of strategic thinking.
The project-based approach has its critics, of course, both in education and in computer science. Opponents of the holistic learning movement argue that it throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to teach basic and essential skills like multiplication. The political backlash in elementary public schools takes the form of programs that promote a “back to basics”, “skill-based” approach. And Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen argues that attempting to "reverse-engineer" the brain with our limited, present day knowledge is like asking medieval scientists to reverse-engineer a jet engine.
Both Kurzweil and the most sophisticated educator-advocates of project-based learning would argue that the question is one of orientation. For example, while voracious readers develop strong and contextually rich vocabularies, vocabulary flash cards can be valuable scaffolding for any student. But if the goal is to produce powerful communicators and critical thinkers, the emphasis needs to be primarily on reading rather than on amassing vocabulary or diagramming sentences. Likewise, Kurzweil and his fellow deep-learning theorists owe and acknowledge an enormous debt to detail-oriented neuro- and cognitive science, but their progress relies on identifying and building upon a few simple principles of how the mind operates.
As neuroscience, cognitive science, computer programming, and artificial intelligence progress, we’re understanding better and better how we learn. The promise for education is that we’ll gradually move away from vacillating between idiosyncratic experimentation and traditionalism, and toward methods of learning that will capitalize on our brain’s unique capacity for curiosity, discovery, creativity, and intellectual delight.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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