The Internet Intellectual (Morozov on Jarvis)

A fairly devastating takedown of Jeff Jarvis's new book Public Parts by Evgeny Morozov (author of The Net Delusion):

http://www.tnr.com/print/article/books/magazine/96116/the-internet-intellectual (print version – should not require sign-in).

I almost feel bad for Jarvis. It seems like a solid critique, and tackles not only Jarvis but other Internet utopians (e.g. Clay Shirky), but it's perhaps a little mean-spirited.

Robot teachers are on the way

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about robotic teachers. An excerpt:

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

Several countries have been testing teaching machines in classrooms. South Korea, known for its enthusiasm for technology, is “hiring” hundreds of robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with robots that would teach English.

Already, these advances have stirred dystopian visions, along with the sort of ethical debate usually confined to science fiction. “I worry that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as the instructor,” said Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they will see it as the master.”

Most computer scientists reply that they have neither the intention, nor the ability, to replace human teachers. The great hope for robots, said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, “is that with the right kind of technology at a critical period in a child’s development, they could supplement learning in the classroom.”

Link: Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot.

I don’t think you can fault the individual computer scientists’ intentions here, and it may well be that robots offer unique value in certain special situations like working with autistic children. But I have to agree with those who find this trend disturbing. I don’t think Resnick’s worry about seeing robots “as the master” is the worst problem. Our society values technology more than it values teachers. These robots aren’t solving a problem that couldn’t be solved better with people. And down the road it’s not hard to see the day when cheap robots become much more than just a supplement.

To repeat a quote I posted 5 years ago:

“In the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers.”

Stephen Kindel, quoted by Todd Oppenheimer in The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology.

Radiation Treatment Errors and Bad Design

The New York Times has an excellent investigative report into radiation treatment errors. They tell the story of two patients who died due to errors, and report on the frequency of these events. Sadly the errors usually look preventable in hindsight. And predictably, manufacturers of the machines blame the technicians who operate the machines, when in truth a main cause is bad software design without proper attention to safety and usability practices.

Link: Radiation Offers New Cures, and Ways to do Harm.

The article is the first in a series called The Radiation Boom. This kind of deep reporting is what makes the NYT and organizations like it so valuable.