This essay is part of my resolution to post shorter, less developed essays weekly in addition to my longer, more developed essays once a month. With this little commitment, I hope to maintain a more frequent connection with the outside world and to spark discussion on topics with other intelligent minds.
Have you been thinking about AI as much as I have? ChatGPT burst on the public scene recently, revealing the most incredible machine learning capabilities we had yet to see. These remarkable new technologies should be challenging our beliefs about what is or is not unique to being human. One of the most interesting implications of AI's growth is that it has illuminated the absurdity of our educational system's massively overemphasized biased towards the STEM field at the expense of the humanities. Experts such as Max Tegmark have warned for quite some time that this is misguided, as those are precisely the fields that will be most replaceable by "smarter" technologies. Of course, we still need some students studying math and engineering, but only if they are encouraged to innovate in those fields.
In a pattern that I plan to explore more in depth elsewhere, humans tend to model themselves in the image of their machines, movements, and ideologies. The industrial revolution revolutionized not just industry, but more quietly, our self-knowing. Now we are obsessed with productivity and efficiency, two terms best applied to machines, not humans. Capitalism has revolutionized our self-knowing as well, transforming everything and every relation into a commodity— we "invest" in relationships, "spend" time, and "save" dates. A complex web of philosophies have led us to the current state of affairs, in which all education focuses on information acquisition (an input/ output process, just like data in a computer). We memorize information, cram for exams, and then dutifully produce a designated learning product. But artificial intelligence/ machine learning can do exactly the same— just much better and much faster.
If "lending" (there's the economic term again) much thought to these developments makes you feel a bit queasy, it should. We are becoming our machines and then passively letting them replace us.
If other impersonal intelligences can produce this knowledge better than a student can, then why do we value human learning? Why do we mandate the education of our children? Here is the simple idea I want to convey in this brief essay: Because machine learning is dominating education as "information acquisition," the relevance of human education is condensed to a single value: learning as inner transformation.
Whether or not a robot or machine could become "conscious" (this is a widely misunderstood question that I will not explore now), we would have no way of accessing that robot's inner life or of knowing that such a life exists. In other words, a robot could have all the external "markers" of consciousness, but it would still be impossible to determine whether it was conscious, because consciousness cannot be measured. The "inner life" of a robot, if it exists, will always remain inaccessible to me.
The one thing I can experience is my inner life, which, because it's constructed socially (or, intersubjectively), is wholly mine and yet not solipsistic. Education should exist in service to the one known reality: the whole-bodied, whole-souled transformation of the individual (and again, this is an "individual" that— while concentrated in a specific space and time— always pushes beyond its ego boundaries). This education should change the student to such a degree that the personality is enriched, the soul is widened, the psyche deepened.
All kinds of learning can transform in this way. Simone Weil claimed that geometry purifies the soul. Mathematics is a poetry that economizes and clarifies the mind. Biology diversifies the sight so the world attains a richness, clarity, and differentiation that could not appear to the untrained mind before. The list goes on: every discipline a doorway to a richer way of being. In the broader sense, the very habits of learning can enrich human life— teaching discipline, focus, curiosity, and perhaps imbuing each waking moment with greater presence and meaning. Simone Weil again: "prayer consists of attention." Insofar as education trains the attention, it both prepares one for prayer and is a form of prayer itself. If the more theistic connotations of prayer raise a secular eyebrow, we could call it "meditation." Weil's conception of prayer is a kenosis, or self-emptying, much less verbal and more attentive than many Christian conceptions of prayer.
Education should not train us to become as efficient and "intelligent" as our machines, but should instead aim to transform the frail and fleshy consciousness that is mine and yours alone to carry: wholly human because wholly enfleshed in the particular concerns, struggles, and joys of being-human. This transformation can be difficult to quantify, and our culture certainly overvalues the quantifiable.
Could teachers be comfortable with this more ineffable task? (of course, some already are) Could we make learning an individualized, creative, whole-souled practice? What would that look like? What kind of human societies would that create? And what other lessons can AI technology teach us about what it means to be human, about our place in the world?
Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts below!
Until next week,