25 October 2012

Technology and the great ‘refreshment’ of learning and playing

There is widespread fear that technology kills more jobs than it creates. Obviously so in manufacturing where Europe has seen hundreds of thousands of jobs ‘relocate’ to emerging economies. Or increasingly become replaced by industrial robots. Now, innovation in knowledge technologies – e.g. the language technology industry– will also appear to be replacing what we thought of as unique human skills by increasingly cheap techno-fixes. 

Copy-editors are being (so far inadequately) replaced by digital spell and grammar checkers. Court interpreters might eventually find themselves waiting longer for a phone call when the judge can simply plug into a (still perfectible) speech to speech translation service. Instantaneous speech analytics can do a quicker job than quality inspectors in pinpointing anomalies in contact centre practices. And trading translators for machines has been a familiar complaint for years now.

In knowledge-intensive industries, there will always be a certain subset of procedures that can be modelled as an algorithm and automated inside a workflow – think of AI-driven medical diagnoses or running text analytics on a large corpus of customer complaints. But we are also learning that technology can aid the agile human brain to rediscover a certain pleasure in activities that were once thought to have been ‘solved’ by digital methods. What were once tedious jobs, difficult mental games, or hard-grind obligations such as rote-learning can now – thanks to computers - be transformed into pleasurable recreations.

Interestingly, the English word recreation comes from the Latin recreationem meaning "recovery from illness" which evolved by 1400 into "refreshing oneself by some amusement". Harvard economics professor Kenneth Rogoff has recently drawn attention to a curious twist in the recent history of chess-playing. It has largely been ‘refreshed’ or ‘re-created ‘under the effect of a technology that might well have caused its extinction:

Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that, worldwide, technological change could easily lead to the loss of 5-10 million jobs each year. Fortunately, until now, market economies have proved stunningly flexible in absorbing the impact of these changes. A peculiar but perhaps instructive example comes from the world of professional chess. (…) In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a short match. Soon, potential chess sponsors began to balk at paying millions of dollars to host championship matches between humans. (…) Nevertheless, a curious thing has happened: far more people make a living as professional chess players today than ever before. Thanks partly to the availability of computer programs and online matches, there has been a mini-boom in chess interest among young people in many countries. Many parents see chess as an attractive alternative to mindless video games. A few countries, such as Armenia and Moldova, have actually legislated the teaching of chess in schools.

Another item on the ‘technology is skill-destructive’ agenda is the signature human ability to use memory to carry out a complex skill such as learning a language. There are regular complaints that digital tech has replaced (memory-based) mathematical skills, for example, or that a digital speech-to-speech translator will eventually eliminate the need for language learning. 

What may really be happening, though, is that technology is releasing us from the cognitive burdens we associate specifically with work. And enabling us to ‘re-create’ these erstwhile functional skills such as memorising and language learning as recreational pleasures.

Ed Cooke, the CEO of Memrise, is trying to encourage communities to invent new ways to learn old human tricks such as memorising. In an interview, he said:

My cultural prediction is that the notion of learning is going to become increasingly detached from what is practical and increasingly linked to what is recreational and interesting. All we really try to do on the Internet is learn stuff, to understand what’s going on. Reading the Internet is an incredibly inefficient way of doing that – you can read Wikipedia for hours and end up with one anecdote. I think there will be some really interesting technology coming in the next few years to combine learning, reading and recreation. As long as we continue to think of learning as a functional thing then we’ll soon have to confront very soon the fact that we’re redundant as a species.  But if you think of learning in the way you think about having a conversation or going to see a film as a personal way to have fun and enrich yourself, then that’s a better to think about learning in the long term.

If it proves true, this shift from a functional to a recreational – some might say a ‘gaming’ - mind-set in the digital age could largely draw on language technology. Language learning, language making (the recreational construction of Klingon-type languages for games of all sorts or for hobbyist communities) and generally playing around with anything from writing systems to spoken dialects could form just one strand in the great refreshment of our personal and social lives through technology.

Author: Andrew Joscelyne

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