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Training and Development

My life as a tech teacher part 6: We could live for a thousand years

We'd concentrated on programming for the past few weeks, so it was time for a change. After all, I called this course 'Understanding and programming computers,' so a wider context is important.

I asked the children to close the laptops and listen. I explained that I wanted to give them an idea of where computing is now. I reminded them of the old PC from 1983 that I'd brought into the first lesson, then pointed out that the laptops they're using now are, depending on how you measure such performance, several thousand times more powerful. That growth happened in 30 years. What about the next 20?

"They will keep getting faster."

"They will be as clever as us."

"They will be cleverer than us."

I asked the children what happens when you hold a computer up to a mirror. They looked stumped and said nothing, which is the right answer. Then I asked what happens when they look in the mirror.

"I see myself."

"I recognise myself."

From here I moved on to an explanation of consciousness, how one of the major differences between us and computers is that we are self-aware, autonomous, with at least some control over our lives and behaviour.

Then I explained what's happening in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and computer modelling, with several expensive projects under way to model part or all of the human brain, to try to replicate the huge number of interconnecting axons and neurons in software. I estimated that such projects are perhaps five to ten years away from success – at least partial success.

"What will happen when we switch it on? Will it be conscious or self-aware? Would it recognise itself in the mirror?" I asked.

"Yes."

"No."

"Maybe."

Which is a fair summary of current scientific opinion on the matter. We simply don't know. The hard problem of consciousness remains unsolved and possibly unsolvable. Where is consciousness? What is it? We don't know. Maybe a computer model will be conscious, maybe not. Either way, switching it off may prove ethically problematic.

I changed tack. "How do you know right from wrong?"

"My parents."

"My emotions."

"Laws and the police."

"Common sense."

All valid answers. "Do computers have any of those things? No. So we have to teach them. You have to teach them. Those of you who grow up to become programmers will need to think about the outcome of your programs. You'll have to think about rules that stop computers doing things that are bad to humans."

Then I told them about artificial intelligence, neural networks, the exponential trends in computing development. I told them about Ray Kurzweil on one side, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking on the other. I told them about the potential benefits of computers becoming ever more powerful – and the potential risks.

"Will I be able to have a brain chip to become a ninja?" asked the teacher. "Yes, probably. And maybe you'll live for a thousand years, have bionic implants that let you think faster, move faster..." and then the class exploded.

There was so much discussion that I wish I'd recorded it. Terminator was mentioned a couple of times, along with other films such as I, Robot and Her, and the possibility of supposedly good computers being hacked to do bad things – and vice-versa. We discussed what might happen in the next 20 years and how that would affect these children's lives.

Bringing the class back to the present, I pointed out that they didn't have to worry about ethical programming rules for Scratch, because their cat sprite was unlikely to harm anyone. But it was important to be aware of these issues, because computers are changing the world very quickly.

We spent the rest of the lesson learning how to make one sprite interact with another using edge detection and colour changes.

They left with plenty to think about.

P.S. The press came last week to watch the lesson and interview me. If I'd known they were coming I'd have shaved.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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