Saturday, 28 February 2015

Minecraft imagination and collaboration.

I have seen a few tweets about use of Minecraft in school some people seemed less that keen, here is why I would use it.

I had a lovely insight into collaboration via Minecraft not long ago there were four children in the house and not sure how many elsewhere connected online maybe 4-6 others. Aged 8-13 ish as far as I could tell. They were using desktops, tablets and a range of smaller smart devices. They were communicating via f2f, text chats and VOIP.  It was a Saturday and I was working but kept being drawn into their dialogue and being shown what was going on. They played for several hours journeying in and out of each other's worlds. 

To me it seemed like a great opportunity for them to show off / enthuse about / explain what they had made. It is important for self-esteem to display to others the things you are proud of creating. There is a lot of trust involved if you decide to unlock a world for collaboration as friends can then destroy anything you have made. To them that offer of trust was no big deal, it was just a thing they do. A great demonstration of friendship and trust with an undercurrent of adherence to moral values. All characteristics we want children to absorb via life in school.

I saw impressive self organisation of teamwork / use of informal democratic processes for deciding what to make, what to destroy, how to improve what exists, praise was offered where praise was due and there was occasionally a sort of humorous ragging along with helpful suggestions about things that were seen as less than good. Defences were mounted as to why those things were the way they were and the rationale was then understood and often agreed by peers or they joined in developing improvements. From my perspective it had all of the characteristics of an outstanding community of inquiry in action.

Amongst what I saw was a towering tree that appeared to be hundreds of meters high with a very imaginative and well kitted out multi-story treehouse. Peers were impressed, one went off to build one in his world, another suggested "What about we make a roller-coaster to get down from it?" A cantilevered extension was built, a roller-coaster with loops and twists was constructed, it became a sightseeing tour with a negotiated route that included several passes round a massive castle, a jungle treetop excursion and a 360 degree horizontal loop round a farm full or cubic animals. The castle was extended to include an arch over the roller-coaster track that turned into a tunnel. A sightseeing trip through the castle included what appeared to be hundreds of rooms, some full of treasures or massive feasting tables. Long dark steps led down to what I expected to be the dungeons but was a 'man den' that included a 'secret' cinema and gaming complex and an underground lake.

Most seemed to have built castles, forests, lakes, islands, farms, there were partially constructed places they would like in the real world - the inside and outside of "a brilliant school", a variation on our local park, ideal homes and great little villages, the detail and imaginative thinking was quite spectacular. Many had added logos such as giant Batman or Superman symbols, there were 3D constructions or bass reliefs of characters from shows like Sponge Bob, or their favourite superheroes/villains, giant King Kong like gateways and imaginative follies. There were several worlds with pyramids and one pretty good Sphinx. There were no cities, skyscrapers, motorways or other things that belong in the densely populated areas of our real world but then they live in a tiny rural village in Cornwall and Minecraft seems to have no limits on space so there was no need or interest in creating overcrowded places. I am sure city children could have fun imagining improvements to the environment they are used to inhabiting.

I could go on and on and on about what was there but hopefully that is enough of an idea. If I were still working in KS2 I would want a class world in which to let their imaginations run free, in which to develop sharing and caring and collaboration and all the other rich and positive characteristics that define a wonderful class team.  Lego is a wonderful tool but unless you have unlimited budget and space it has to be dismantled and put away. Minecraft offers the opportunity to create a long term world with huge dimensions, possible and impossible creations and deep engagement in independent or social construction. As yet there is no shoot em up element and that is a big plus as far as online gaming goes. 

Digital Lego may look a bit weird to an adult who has not lived in its world and it will not appeal to every child or teacher but that could be said of many other activities and resources used regularly in schools. 

Why wouldn't you?

Friday, 27 February 2015

What future?

My good friend and colleague Alison Feist recently tweeted a link to a Guardian article.

Alison Feist @AlisonFeist1 · Feb 24
Could computers ever replace teachers?

This brought me back to a train of thought that briefly surfaced while writing my last EdD paper. Machines have already augmented learning and replaced some aspects of what teachers used to do. In some respects the replacing of teachers with machines is a relatively minor concern. The evolution of intelligent technologies is well underway, in the not too long term this offers potential for major transformation of our ability to augment natural learning, to repair humans, to understand the universe and all that is in it and to reach out and inhabit other planets. Wonderful and exciting developments but I do feel there are potentially high risks as far as human survival goes.

I was a special guest at a TELMAP meeting in Brussels in 2013 in which I facilitated several group discussions on future evolution of technology and learning, below is a summary of my group's thoughts.

We speculated about the possibility of machine / man symbiosis and largely assumed benevolence for the purpose of the exercise. To pursue consideration of the potential for a dystopian future would have been well off the appreciative vector the meeting was examining. The above table was a best shot in the time available to reflect core issues from the group discussion. Like others in my group I felt there was inadequate time to do the topic justice or to articulate fully the findings of discussion or the unanswered questions that it provoked. Two years on and it is clear that "Increasingly intelligent and ambient technologies" are appearing and that much effort is going into this evolution. A snapshot from today's media shows a few of these.

During our future gazing we briefly discussed the potential for chips in the brain able to read thoughts and transmit them to machines or other humans and felt that could lead to all sorts of interesting and worrying potentials. This is an area that is already progressing rapidly. Controlling a drone via brain remote control of commercial / military aircraft is almost here "Technology is evolving, regulations are evolving. [Unmanned jets are] obviously going to happen. The question is not if, it's when." A bionic eye linked to a chip implanted in the brain Human trials still a decade away but another important step towards synthesis of biology and machine. A machine teaching itself how to play games What caught my attention here was the link to intuition and processing / synthesis of large amounts of data: "Scientists are developing computer programs that - like the human brain - can be exposed to large amounts of data, such as images or sounds, and then intuitively extract useful information or patterns." The paper published in Nature is well worth a read; the 'deep Q network agent' is designed to combine reinforcement learning with advanced deep neural networks and seems to operate in a very similar way to biological systems building up abstract representations of data in order to learn concepts. The goal of the agent is to select actions that maximise reward. Although still in early days there is a lot of interest in imbuing robots with empathy, incorporating AI technology developed for Watson into robots is on the horizon.

Basic biological computers using slime molds and organic nano scale computing and the potential for brain to brain networks are being explored. Whether this is done by using existing animal brains or attempts to grow 'human' brain material, as we already do with other organs, it is a strange and slightly uncomfortable line of development.

I don't adhere to any religious concepts so for me the human brain is an autonomous processing machine and reward based intuition is exactly what these guys are talking about in hard technology machines. The emotional states associated with intuitive moments seem to me nothing more than a reward tagging mechanism. Success from an intuitive intervention feels good, feels clever, it feels like being 'tuned in'. 'It felt good so it is good and that is something I need to do again' is a key affective driver of our form of sentience and in my opinion is one shared by many other life forms. Empathy, another human characteristic, seems to be viable via machine. I don't see the need for a soul or other supernatural force to guide such insights. A powerful information processor with access to masses of past data that is compared with an in the moment experience could combine induction, deduction and abduction to arrive at the most likely solution/explanation/successful action. Although intuition and empathy often lead to a feeling of certainty or a 'knowing that I am right', a well developed critical thinker will also embrace uncertainty and be aware of caveats in relation to to intuitive or empathetic interpretations. The potential for this to be incorporated in everyday machines will be upon us in the very near future. Whether this is leading towards self aware or sentient machine 'life' in the near future is difficult to predict. The debate as to the nature of self awareness is complex and not satisfactorily resolved in my opinion. I am both excited and scared at the prospect of exploring this in machines.

Stephen Hawking recently warned that in relation to processing power and machine capability "there are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved" his assertion that humans could rapidly be outstripped by machines and that this might not be a good thing has been a theme in many science fiction works, this is a genre that is rarely take seriously by the larger population but is peppered with many ideas that have since been realised and many that may well be soon upon us. There were many flaws and flights of fancy in the imaginings of Sci-Fi authors but there were also many well thought out scenarios and messages. A key theme in 2001 A Space Odyssey is autonomy of machines. The film was influenced strongly by Kubrick's direction but was based on themes Arthur C. Clarke had explored in several books. HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer) is in control of a spaceship; he starts 'behaving badly'. The initial programming and the logic inherent in the computer placed it's 'self' as infallible and humans as error prone with their lack of consistent logic. HAL appears to test Frank Poole by making a deliberate mistake in their game of chess and Poole fails to notice. This game is based on an outstanding game played in the 1930s. Poole's response suggests to HAL that humans are inferior in detecting error and hence are a potential risk to the mission. HAL goes on to question mission commander Dave Bowman and realises that he is not aware of the true purpose of the mission. The success of the mission is a deep element of HAL's programming, it could be conjectured that HAL felt this to be his reason for existing. With the potential for humans making errors and their lack of information about the real goal of the mission (that HAL does 'know') the logical step is to eliminate the humans to avoid mission failure. Hawking's assertion implies machines controlling their own destiny is a dangerous future, this is a timely reminder of a potential that authors like Clarke were offering many decades ago. HAL discovers that Poole and Bowman intend deactivating him and takes action to avoid that outcome. With careful engineering of situations by HAL the plot leads to point where Poole is dead and Bowman is outside the spacecraft. HAL refuses to let him in stating that he can not let the disconnection happen. Kubrick interpreted the disconnection scene very well with HAL displaying some quasi human characteristics attempting to deceive and playing for sympathy by pretty much pleading temporary insanity then trying to instill confidence in his ability "I feel much better now".

HAL is a useful illustration of the potential dangers of the evolution towards increasingly intelligent and ambient technologies and the development of a nature like relationship. It is not many decades since computers with 4Kb RAM filled whole floors of buildings and required punch cards to input information. From the late 80s development headed towards supercomputers Deep Thought then Deep Blue and Watson. These are hugely powerful but again not the kind of tech that could be bought by the general public. It is only a few decades since bulky desktop machines with 32kb of RAM revolutionised offices and education, it is not much less than 2 decades since laptops heralded the start of usable portable computing at a price that made them viable for widespread public ownership. The first smart phone arrived mid 1990s but was very basic and barely usable away from a power source. By 2007 the first iPhone arrived and small portable technologies started to mature. Apple, Pebble and others have developed smart watches into useful tools at a reasonable price and the functionality will increase rapidly as miniaturisation improves and near field communication becomes standard. Playful and useful tech is built into clothes and Google Glass could be seen as a very important stepping stone despite the problems inherent in the first iteration and the obvious tricky social considerations. Recently mind controlled prosthetic limbs are becoming very much usable. The increase in power and reduction in size of tech has reduced the intrusion factor, the ability to talk to a smart phone and for it to talk back gives a more life like aspect and as wearables and the internet of things develop technology is becoming part of the ambiance that surrounds us. The development of intuition and empathy will bring more life like aspects to our relationship with machines in the near future. However there is a lot of future ahead of us and if Moore's law stands up for even another decade it is hard to imagine what machines will be capable of.

Quantum computers have been a difficult goal to achieve but predictions that we are within 5 or 10 years of success are becoming more convincing. Quantum states are complex and move on from being either a 1 or a 0 state by introducing the potential to be both 1 and 0 simultaneously. There are many problems superconductors tend to only work at very cold temperatures so need vast cooling systems but research is showing a potential for new materials to escape this need. Until recently maintaining qbits in stable states longer than microseconds was impossible due to their spin state being vulnerable to change by the influence of nearby particles. Recent progress by Morello and Dzurak in 2014 isolating qubits in pure silicon seems to have achieved stability for up to 30 seconds. Reductions in error rates are leading to claims in 2014 / 15 that there are now no barriers and Google have set out with a team of 'quantum engineers' with the aim of developing a quantum computer. Entanglement of numerous qbits further multiplies the processing power but is difficult to achieve. Entanglement is easier to maintain with photons and progress at MIT in the development of chips coated with multiple single photon detectors is a crucial step towards achieving viable quantum computers. Other developments at MIT include swarms of drones that communicate and behave like insects. Power and autonomy are developing fast.

By 'life-like' my TELMAP group were also acknowledging that there is potential for both benevolence and aggression, altruism and selfishness, the potential for machines to develop notions of 'us and them' that underlie intolerance, racism, war, genocide, eugenics, and all the terrible achievements of our species.

We already have robots capable of building furniture, of self organising into swarms, able to repair and self repair. In 2005 a proof of concept basic self replicating robot was built at Cornell. A decade later the University of Oslo are experimenting with self learning, self repairing and self reproduction "The arms of one of the robots is fitted with a printer. This produces a new robot, or a new part for the existing robot, which enables it to negotiate the stairs.

The ability to take in sensory information and to process and store that information in a connection rich habitat such as an organic brain or primitive nervous system seems a key requirement for sentient life as we know it, this would also seem a potential that machine processing and storage systems could achieve. We seem to be on the brink of huge breakthroughs in synthesis of biological and machine interfaces, however these might well be a stepping stone to a very different existence. Given the vast distances involved, to conquer the stars, to explore even our own tiny galaxy in our current biological form is not feasible unless we can achieve light speed travel. Far easier would be to set intelligent machines off on that journey be they mechanical or bio-mechanical.

Autonomous reproduction and development of 'improved versions' is already here albeit in fairly simple machines. Similar developments are going ahead with nanotechnology. The unforeseen outcomes of the logic of HAL's programming may have been fictional conjectures but the potential for autonomous machine intelligence to excel (from its perspective) while malfunctioning (from our perspective) is a clear and present danger and is not one we should blithely ignore. Setting them off to explore the far reaches of space we would lose any vestige of control, it would be difficult to predict what form or attitude they might have should they return.

Looking beyond human intelligence and machine AI is what Clarke and Kubrick seem to have been concerned with in the final scenes in 2001 with the 'evolutionary rebirth' of Bowman as the star child. The speculation here is a new frontier in evolution. Positing that sentient existence is not exclusive to biological entities and that both organic and machine capacity is limited by material physics then the next logical step is existence in a pure energy form. Perhaps such an entity could travel anywhere and like qubits exist in more than one state at any time, If time turns out to be a perceived rather than actual dimension perhaps existence everywhere and every time could be possible just not in a way that we in our present state can detect.

I kindof set out wanting to record a trawl of recent developments in computing to consider whether we were anywhere near computers replacing teachers. I never imagined I would rediscover HAL and get even more scared and excited about our future that I already was. It has been an interesting journey.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Are you connected?

Siemens (2004) posited that extending personal networks leads to the amplification of knowledge and understanding and this is driven by the small efforts of many contributing to the larger efforts of a few and all contributing to the accumulation of shared knowledge. Downes (2012) asserts that knowledge lies within networks be they neural, human or machine, he identifies four mechanisms integral to this process: similarity, contiguity, feedback and harmony. In my experience these are powerful forces and in today's connected society social media such as Twitter, blogs, Facebook and Youtube is where much of today's knowledge is generated, communicated, challenged and affirmed. 

In my opinion Twitter is the key portal through which to access the cutting edge of connected knowledge. It is a vibrant hive of shared information and dialogue. If you follow the right people and tweet / retweet the right things you can rapidly develop a local and global footprint. I have been added to Twitter lists in Europe, Australia and the US. My activity is relatively minor.

I spend perhaps 15-30 minutes a day browsing Twitter in short visits, my phone pings when there is activity relating to my Tweets and I tend to respond straight away but that only takes seconds to do. High-level users will spend more time identifying a target audience and generating material likely to provoke follows from many thousands of people. I have seen educational accounts with over 100k followers, these are often manned by a team rather than being individual accounts. It is also possible to buy follows and interactions by the tens of thousands so it can be difficult to be sure who is influential and who is financing their social presence beyond its real sphere of influence.

 I also run several blogs and gain around 1000 views a month despite not really promoting them. On some days there are spikes where several hundred hits happen over a few hours. I know some of my learning journal blog posts are used on MOOCs and other courses as I have talked to some who have visited it. The graphic below indicates the geographical extent of my blog readership over the last 4 weeks. During the previous 4 weeks it was dominated by Eastern Europe. 

I created two public Twitter lists for personal research and for use by my students via embedding on the VLE. I add to them on a daily basis as I come across interesting folk. Students and people I don't directly know have contacted me to say how useful the lists have been to them. used on MBA Educational Leadership and Management Primarily created for my research journal blog but also used on an Outdoor Play Experiences module and would be useful for any modules on outdoor play or learning as it currently links over 100 practitioners, organisations and academics in the field. 

In my experience journals are increasingly distanced from the heart of academic rhetoric, their readership is tiny and many argue that in a rapidly evolving world papers can be out of date by the time they are published. Trust in published sources is diminished as evidenced by almost daily accounts in the media of publications that were unreliable, some of these are based on research that was backed by commercial funding although that does not always mean output is not legitimate and objective. The unfounded proposed benefit of drinking a glass of red wine a day claim is a good example, others include the discredited learning styles theory, the discredited advice about avoiding dairy products, conflicting advice about the the role of salt, fibre, fruit, meat, sugars and a host of claimed antioxidants in our diet. The impact of such published research can be far reaching for producers and consumers, it is important that it is based on large scale, systematic and replicable study and carefully scrutinised. The acid bath stem cell publication 'Stimulus Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency' peer reviewed and published in Nature then debunked and retracted 5 months later is another example. Only a small proportion of research appears to be replicable, this is understandable with contextualised social research but less so with scientific studies. 

Today's challenge appears to be to identify who is a reliable source and to check the social discourse about their ideas to see what other professionals make of them. In an open access online world peer review is public and can involve many in ongoing debate, this would seem more valuable than traditional journal peer review that is private and largely just from two reviewers who will not infrequently have limited expertise and sometimes provide directly contrasting views as to what is valuable and what needs to be developed in a draft paper. 

We live in an increasingly connected and altruistic academic world, if you are not using social media to communicate your knowledge and to engage in debate in your field then much of the world is missing out on what you are learning. Making use of such opportunities to become part of the connected and open society can only benefit your professional profile and long term career prospects.

Downes, S., 2012. Connective Knowledge Essays on meaning and learning networks.

Siemens, G., 2004. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.