Tag Archives: Orson Scott Card

Imagining the Future of Education through Science Fiction

by Hap Aziz

Readers of Science Fiction are quite often drawn to the predictive capacity of the genre. From rockets to robots to nanotechnology to cyborg implants to virtual reality… these things and more have been the domain of Science Fiction literature since early in the 20th century, and concepts like these are the foundation of the genre moving forward. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of our current technology in the story lines from past works by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But Science Fiction has never been only about the technology. Indeed, Science Fiction has always asked the big “What If?” questions on topics such as social customs and norms, political systems, cultural conflicts, and the concept of identity that transcends gender, race, and even species. Consider novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Fahrenheit 451; television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; movies such as Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes–Science Fiction has always captured our collective imagination with the Big Idea.

Given the breadth of Big Ideas in the body of Science Fiction literature, it’s rather surprising that the topic of education has not received a more robust treatment, other than mention as supporting plot elements, for the most part. And it the majority of those mentions, the format of education isn’t that much different than the model in place today: the interaction between a student and teacher, often within a cohort of students, usually in a face-to-face technology mediated environment. In episodes of Star Trek, set hundreds of years into the future, there are scenes of young children in what appears to be fairly standard-looking classrooms (with more tech hardware). Consider Yoda teaching the Jedi younglings like an elementary school teacher from the 19th century. Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is basically a military boarding academy with video games and zero gravity gymnasiums. Even in Flowers for Algernon, a story in which the main character’s IQ is dramatically improved through a surgical procedure performed on his brain, Charlie still learns primarily by reading books. In the majority of these stories, while the human capacity to learn or the actual learning process is enhanced by technology, the act of learning is fundamentally unchanged from the way in which people have learned since the beginning of time.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions. In John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, soldiers’ learning is significantly enhanced through the use of the BrainPal, a neural implant that can download information directly into the human brain at a tremendous rate. Similarly, in the movie The Matrix, people can acquire new skills simply by downloading the appropriate data file. This is also quite like the technology used in Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse, in which the brain is literally a blank slate ready for a completely different mind (with it’s own set of memories and skills) to be imprinted. In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Inner Light,” an entire lifetime of events is loaded into Captain Picard’s brain in 20 minutes–with an artifact of that experience being the ability to play an instrument he never saw before he “lived” his alternate life.

What all those exceptions have in common is that they fundamentally alter the method by which information is loaded into the human brain, and they do so in a digital rather than analog fashion. The result is that the time required to load the desired information is much reduced from the traditional input methods of using our own analog senses to acquire knowledge, then disciplining the mind to retain that knowledge and training the body to function appropriately (memorization and practice). All other methods of instruction, no matter how we reinvent them or try to integrate assistive technology, still encounter the analog gateway (and in some cases, barrier) of our senses. The “data transfer rate” effectively comes down to the learner’s ability to effectively absorb what’s coming through that gateway. I remember when I was in high school and I wanted to record songs from my record albums onto cassette tape so that I could take them with me to play on my Walkman. I had a cassette recording deck connected to my record turntable, but I could only record in real time–I could only record at the actual speed that the records played across that analog gateway.

If I’m imagining the future of education as a storyline in Science Fiction, I see the need for a digital-to-analog converter that serves as a high-speed interface to the brain. That’s what would enable the story examples I cited above, facilitating the speedy transfer of knowledge and possibly eliminating (or minimizing) the need to practice for skills mastery. Right now it takes a lifetime to acquire a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and even then there is no guarantee that we can successfully access more than a fraction of what we have acquired. Now when I want to digitize my CD collection so I can store it on my portable MP3 player, the ripping process takes a fraction of the time as playing all the songs.

Perhaps I’ve planted the seeds for a Science Fiction story I should write: What would it be like if several lifetimes flashed before our eyes at the moment of death? Somehow we’d have to experience all those lifetimes… and that’s just another way of saying we’d need to figure out how to become life-long learners several times over.

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Filed under education, education technology, future technology, Hap Aziz, life-long learning, Science Fiction

Connecting Game Avatars with the Real World

by Hap Aziz

While my thoughts are focused on avatars, I’ll take a slight detour before the end of 2011 to explore the topic a little deeper. I promise I’ll tie the topic back to the whole EPS theme before too long.

The concept of avatars and the possible technology ramifications have been a staple of Science Fiction for many years, and certainly avatars as devices of identity have been a part of the computer and video game experience since the late 1970s.

The picture below is a screenshot of the video game Space Wars from 1977. Space Wars was the first vector graphics video game, and the player-controlled spaceships were the first avatar representations produced on computers. (It is important to remember that an avatar is not simply a representation of a person or lifeform that a game player can self-identify as being. An avatar can also be any object or entity that a player can control.) The idea of the game was simple: control your spaceship and destroy the enemy ship while avoiding being sucked into the gravity well of the point singularity in the center of the screen.

Now consider this passage from the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game:

“… there was the simulator, the most perfect videogame he had ever played. Teachers and students trained him, step by step in its use. At first, not knowing the awesome power of the game, he had played only at the tactical level, controlling a single-fighter in continuous maneuvers to find and destroy an enemy. The computer-controlled enemy was devious and powerful, and whenever Ender tried a tactic he found the computer using it against him within minutes.”

– Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, 1985

Ultimately, it is within the context of what the main character Ender believes to be the game, that he actually destroys the enemy in the real world. It is interesting to see how far technology has taken us… and how far we have to go in order to meet the scenarios created in our imaginations. In fact, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been putting out RFPs asking for simulation systems that function very similarly to the way in which Ender’s training system functioned. Today, game manufacturers are driving hardware to create realistic simulations that create incredibly complex and immersive environments.

At this point in time it is difficult to foresee where all the simulation and avatar technology will lead, but it is obvious that there’s an important role for it to play in education. There are challenges in terms of costs, development resources, and curriculum integration, to be sure. One of the greatest hurdles will be in equipping faculty to implement these technology tools on a classroom-appropriate scale, and empowering faculty with the skills and resources to build useful simulations on their own. There is also a tremendous opportunity for the development of intelligent avatars that could be used as tutors or Personal Digital Teachers individualized for every student, residing on a smart device, and powered by the EPS. Perhaps not by the end of 2012, but that’s something which I am certain will come to pass.

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Filed under avatars, education, Educational Positioning System, future technology, games, Personal Digital Teacher, technology