E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine

This post is a response to a challenge set, as a result of Task 2, by Frank Polster, a fellow course participant on Stephen Downes’ MOOC, E-Learning 3.0.

Here is my challenge to all the E-Learning 3.0 cohort and a task associated with course module E-Learning 1 and 2 Conversation with George Siemens. Please comment on what fields, skills, talents, and education that you think are unique domains of humans like Stephen’s “kindness and compassion” and the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

I have given this post the Title, E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine, because that is how I have interpreted this challenge.

My response to the challenge is based on what I have learned from reading the work of Iain McGilchrist,  author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of The Western World. McGilchrist’s writing focusses on the differences between the ways in which the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain view and attend to the world. For example, the left hemisphere’s view of the body is as a machine. The right hemisphere’s view of the body is as a living whole in nature.

I have heard MGilchrist talk about the difference between living things and machines and have written about this before – see my post Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age where I listed the differences he discussed. I will copy them here for ease of reference. According to McGilchrist these are the things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

But what is it that makes human beings unique and different to machines? My response to this (again informed by McGilchrist) is that a human being is able to relate to something ‘Other’ than itself that exist apart from us, beyond ourselves and may be ‘new’ or to some degree ‘unknown’. (A machine can only relate to what is already known.)

Priests, teachers, doctors, and similar professions do this as part of their jobs, through care, empathy, trust, altruism, kindness and compassion. They are able to put themselves in the position of the ‘Other’ and experience their experience. Human beings can experience not only their own pain, but also the pain of others. Human beings can love. We can also see all this in family relationships.

Other characteristics unique to humans are the ability to recognise and experience beauty, awe and wonder, in art, music, dance and nature, and to value wisdom, intuition, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty, flexibility, the implicit and the spiritual. Human beings experience emotions such as humour, fear, anger, anxiety and sadness, and affective states such as hope and optimism; they have a sense of self, an understanding of the uniqueness of the individual, and search for meaning and truth in life. They do this through embodied engagement with the world, not detached abstract contemplation of it or separation from it. Human beings can imagine, wonder and dream.

An education which values the uniquely human is one that focusses on learning the meaning of ‘Other’, recognising the value of living things, nature and the unknown, learning how to think in an embodied way, and acknowledging that thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing……… All thinking is dependent on the body. (From my blog post The Divided Brain – What does it mean to think?)

The second part of Frank’s challenge is – comment on the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

‘Ghost in the machine’ is not an idea I am very familiar with, but what I have read seems to imply that it questions whether there is a ghost in your machine making it work and whether you can put a ‘non-physical mind’ into a physical machine.

This of course relates to Descartes’ argument that mind and body can function separately. My understanding is that this idea of body/mind dualism has long been discredited, so I’m wondering if it is worth taking the idea of ‘ghost in the machine’ seriously, although there are scientists working on trying to understand what’s unique about humans and to replicate this in robots.

If Frank is asking what human-like skills could be adopted by a machine, then I would say only those skills that can be programmed by a human being, and that there are unique qualities of humans, as discussed above, that are immeasurable and cannot be programmed. A machine, if programmed correctly, can perform many of the tasks a human can do, but it cannot do or be programmed for the important, immeasurable tasks and qualities that are so essential for a meaningful life.

And if I am wrong and machines will ultimately be able to replicate humans, then, as I think Frank is asking, what checks should be put in place in a machine to ensure that the machine always has access to an alternative perspective. If we value what is unique about humans, then machines should be programmed to ensure that human beings are never prevented from experiencing the ‘Other’, or thinking and feeling in an embodied way.

Source of image here.

Update 11-11-18

Frank Polster has replied to this post on his blog. See http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/a-response-to-jennys-e-learning-3-0-the-human-versus-the-machine/ 

See also Laura Ritchie’s response to Frank’s task and the conversation there – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/11/10/what_makes_us_human/#comment-57854 

And see Matthias Melcher’s post which informs this discussion – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/ 

11 thoughts on “E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine

  1. Geoff Cain November 9, 2018 / 7:42 am

    this is such a fascinating conversation. The recovering Catholic in me wants to point out that machines do not have volition – they do not “want” to do anything. They have no desire for good or evil which makes them a real problem 🙂

  2. jennymackness November 9, 2018 / 8:53 am

    I agree Geoff. When you start thinking about it, there are many things that humans do that a machine can’t do – more than I have put in this post. Thanks for your comment.

  3. fred6368 November 9, 2018 / 11:39 am

    There is no such thing as Education 3.0 Like Educational Neuroscience it is an oxymoron.

    Sent from my iPad


  4. jennymackness November 9, 2018 / 12:45 pm

    Hi Fred – Good to hear from you. Would you like to say more about why you think this. I’m sure people on the course would be interested, as would I.

    Here is a link to the information that was provided at the start of the course – https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?module=4, i.e. the rationale for E-Learning 3.0.

    This is proving to be a very interesting course/cMOOC, which is discussing a lot of the issues that we face on the web, and how we learn on the web today. You might like to join in?


  5. x28 November 9, 2018 / 9:28 pm

    Thank you Jenny for following this topic like an ostinato of this mooc.
    When you seem to say the machine does not know what the Other is, one might argue that it only knows Others with which it has to interact, and it does not know its Self. But this is really just the same — it is great that you identified knowing thisdifference as crucial.
    When you say (near the bottom) that AI should be programmed to behave in a certain way, this is what I tried to consider in my post on alien AI https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/ and I still doubt that it is possible without strong political decisiveness and pressure against those who do whatever is possible, for their own benefit. And I think it is dangerous to see the machine’s limitations too narrow.

  6. jennymackness November 11, 2018 / 12:09 pm

    Hi Matthias – well – I’ve never been called an ‘ostinato’ before. That’s a first 🙂

    According to Wikipedia:

    >>In music, an ostinato is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch.<<

    I suppose I can be grateful that an ostinato has a musical voice 🙂

    But I agree – this topic won't go away for me, because it seems to me that the philosophical questions around the topics that Stephen has set for this course are just as, if not more, important than the technical ones.

    Thank you for your comment, because it has made me realise that I must further my understanding of the meaning of 'Other'.

    I did find it difficult to write about 'the Other'. I don't think McGilchrist sees Others and 'the Other' as being the same. The trouble with 'the Other' is that it is 'unknown' – and therefore almost impossible to write about. My understanding is that it is recognition of that sense there is something outside of oneself which cannot be described or articulated, but is absolutely essential to our growth as 'human being'. I think it is this that a machine can't recognise. I tried to get at this through words like wonder, awe etc., but as McGilchrist says many times in his book, once you make the implicit explicit (and language does this) then you have lost it.

    I can see from a quick look on Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other_(philosophy) – that many philosophers have tried to explain this. I do need to dig deeper and explore the relationship between Self and Other, which I think must inform this discussion. So thank you for prompting that.

    Also thanks for reminding me about your blog post – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/

    The course is moving on so quickly and there is so much to think about, that I realise I have probably overlooked a lot, or at least not paid enough attention to some important ideas. I realise that your post is one area that I should return to.

    If I come up with anything sensible to say about the idea of 'Other', then I'll write another post.

  7. x28 November 11, 2018 / 3:22 pm

    Oh, so sorry that I hit the wrong one of these musical terms! I should have looked it up. What I meant is a very fine thing which I guess also Iain mentioned somewhere. Pkease excuse this error!

  8. jennymackness November 11, 2018 / 4:02 pm

    No need to be sorry. It made me laugh, although I’m not telling the family. I’d never live it down!

  9. Gerald Ardito February 20, 2019 / 8:06 pm

    I am late coming to this post. I am retracing (and remaking) my steps — as well as catching up — with #EL30.

    I wanted to respond to this comment:
    “A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.”

    I agree. And I saw a tension between a learner (your organism) and the learning environment (which occupy a wide spectrum of positions based on its focus on autonomy, agency, and flexibility). There is also the interaction between this machine the organism that occupies it.

    Thanks for giving me the chance to think about this.

  10. jennymackness February 24, 2019 / 8:43 pm

    Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion Gerald.

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