Education for $1000, Alex

February 22, 2011

Two weeks ago, I caught 20 minutes of a Jeopardy! show featuring Skynet Watson, the trivia-loving artificial intelligence computer built by IBM. Squaring off against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two alpha males of the human Jeopardy!-loving world, I watched with intrigue as Watson mercilessly chewed through questions (“answers”, technically) as the human “competitors” stood by helplessly. (In fact, they reminded me of the celebrity Jeopardy! contestants skewered on SNL.)

Perhaps needing some catharsis after suffering Watson’s utter domination, Jennings – the cherubic genius who became a national celebrity during his Jeopardy! winning streak in 2004 – took to the pages of Slate to describe his experience. This passage in particular caught my attention:

I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as [Watson’s] programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with education? Two quick points. First, you’ll often hear critics of standardized testing decry the practice of “teaching to the test.” In their eyes, rote memorization of mere “trivia” is seen as something very different from, you know, actual learning. Yet Jennings’ description of the process both he and Watson use to “unravel” Jeopardy! clues – identify key words, place in context, and sort likely answers – sounds far more thoughtful than simply regurgitating useless knowledge, doesn’t it?

Second, there are many education entrepreneurs interested in “blended” or hybrid learning – that is, combining traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction with online instructional tools. (NewSchools recently invested $1million in Rocketship Education, a high-performing hybrid school in San Jose. You can read about Rocketship and other leading hybrid schools in an article penned by NewSchools partners Jonathan Schorr and Deborah McGriff in the spring edition of the journal Education Next.) As this movement picks up steam, many fear this will amount to replacing teachers with computers or something equally scary-sounding. But if Watson is a glimpse of what the future holds for artificial intelligence machines, there’s every reason to believe that we will be able to deliver quality, interactive learning experiences online, freeing teachers to focus on higher-level critical thinking skills and project-based work like at some of the best hybrid schools. Apart from the soon-to-be-unemployed Alex Trebek – who seems on the verge of retiring anyway – we should be excited about this possibility.