“When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be?
Will I be pretty?
Will I be rich?
Here’s what she said to me,
Que sera, sera,
Whatever will be, will be.
The future’s not ours to see,
Que sera, sera,
What will be, will be”
(Song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
This is the last of a sequence of nine IAE Newsletters discussing possible roles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in improving our schools. My goal in these newsletters is to help to improve the lives of all people and also all other life on earth. The newsletters are being organized into a short book that will be made available free on the Web.
The current newsletter is not intended to be a scholarly academic thesis. Rather, it attempts to summarize and share some of my current thinking about ideas covered in the earlier newsletters, and to look still further into the future. Therefore, I have not attempted to include multiple references that might help make this document more scholarly and academic.
To get us started, here are some milestones that seem important to me.
- Our universe was formed by something often referred to as the Big Bang that occurred about 13.8 billion years ago. I chuckle when I say years ago, since a year is the length of time for our earth to revolve around our sun. Neither our sun nor our earth existed before about 4.5 billion years ago, so they are only about a third as old as our universe.
- The earliest time that life forms first appeared on earth was 3.77 billion years ago. (It may have been as much as a half-billion years earlier.) In any case, life on earth is very old relative to that of current Homo Sapiens.
- Homo Sapiens evolved from chimpanzees over a period of six or seven million years (Exploratorium, 2009, link). A series of subsequent evolutions led to Homo Sapiens approximately 200 thousand years ago.
Humans and chimps share a surprising 98.8 percent of their DNA. How can we be so similar–and yet so different?
Human and chimp DNA is so similar because the two species are so closely related. Humans, chimps and bonobos descended from a single ancestor species that lived six or seven million years ago. As humans and chimps gradually evolved from a common ancestor, their DNA, passed from generation togeneration, changed too (American Museum of Natural History, 2021, link).
- That pace of evolutionary change seems quite amazing to me, but six or seven million years is a long period of time relative to the lifetime of current humans. Remember, life on earth has had well over 500 times that many years of evolution that started with the first life forms and produced the apes.
- Many creatures have an oral communication system, but only we humans have the very large wide-scale vocabulary oral language that we call speech. This required the evolution of pre-humans to having both the physical capabilities (a larynx, for example) as well as the cognitive capabilities that we currently have. What we call our oral tradition is unique among all life forms on earth.
- We have good evidence of early writing being developed about 5,500 years ago (Wikipedia, 2021b, link). It was humans themselves, rather than evolution, that developed written language. Similarly, it was humans themselves, rather than evolution, that developed electronic digital computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI). In terms of pre-human and Homo Sapiens history, these were very recent occurrences. In terms of moving toward the development of our current cultures and life styles, these two non-evolutionary developments have been game changers. And remember, we have only been developing AI based on using electronic digital computers for about 70 years! This all has occurred during my lifetime. Wow! I have lived during a very interesting time period in human history.
In brief summary, evolution led to Homo Sapiens having their current intelligence and oral languages, while it was the ingenuity and creativeness of humans that led to the development of written language and AI. It is possible, of course, that Homo Sapiens will continue to evolve, either by themselves or through some combination of evolution and genetic engineering, into creatures that have far more inherent abilities than current Homo Sapiens. However, the time frame for evolutionary change is very long relative to the time frame in which written language and computer-based AI have been developed. You and I just happen to be living during a time that computer-based AI has been developed and when its capabilities are increasing rapidly.
I believe it is reasonable to conjecture that natural evolution is not apt to produce significant changes in human capabilities in the next 10,000 years or so. Thus, during the next 10,000 years, the changes in human capabilities will be via the aids that we produce for ourselves, and through our own genetic engineering of ourselves.
Genetic engineering by humans on plants, animals, and ourselves is different from the evolutionary processes that produced them and us. In recent centuries, humans have made some changes on themselves that are vaguely like genetic changes, but (so far) are not considered to be genetic changes. For example, in essence we have come close to eradicating various diseases through vaccination. Current literature indicates that we have eradicated the human disease smallpox, and an animal disease named rinderpest (Wikipedia, 2021a, link); World Organization for Animal Health, 11/22/2018, link).
At various times in recorded history, humans have experienced epidemics that seriously sickened or killed a significant percentage of the infected population. We eventually learned enough about some of these serious diseases to develop vaccinations. It may seem like a little stretch of the vocabulary, but I like to think of a vaccination as a type of non-evolutionary change in our bodies. That is, the vaccination increases the intelligence or capability of our disease-fighting systems. A vaccination might last for a lifetime, or perhaps revaccination may be necessary after a number of years. Some vaccinations even provide some protection to the unborn child of a pregnant woman who receives the vaccination (Greenwood, 2014, link).
Next, let’s consider a quite different type of change that we humans are bringing about in our own species. We have had schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic since shortly after the development of reading and writing. We developed these schools as a way to pass on literacy to our children. In some sense, this is like developing the vaccinations that we inject into our children to prevent our children from getting various diseases.
Survival of the fittest has genetically produced some humans who are more resistant to various diseases than are others. This is a genetic evolutionary process. In contrast, our deliberately working to eradicate a disease is a human process quite different from natural evolution. Thus, we have evolution working to eradicate certain diseases, and we have current human science and medicine working to eradicate certain diseases.
Neither the vaccinations nor the schooling produce permanent changes in human beings that can be passed on genetically from one generation to the next. But, they are major non-genetic changes in people that we can pass on from generation to generation. So, in my mind they are somewhat like an evolutionary change.
Roughly six to seven million years of evolution have taken us from chimpanzee-types of creatures to current Homo Sapiens. We humans are physically different from our pre-human ancestors, but we certainly are not physically superior to them. Where we differ is in our cognitive abilities. We have a long history of using our cognitive abilities to develop tools to aid our physical abilities.
I find it interesting to think about the fact that it took nearly 5,000 years to move from the development of reading and writing to the development of the movable type printing press for printing books and newspapers. Technological progress is much faster than evolutionary progress, but it can still take considerable time.
The rapid acceleration of the pace of technological progress in the past two hundred has been astonishing! We have developed trains, cars, and airplanes that are now a common aid to transportation. We have developed electricity, electric generators, and storage batteries as an important aid to the everyday lives of much of the earth’s people. We have developed radio, television, telephones, cell phones and other aids to communication that (in retrospect) are mind blowing. Current computers and AI far out-perform humans in many cognitive areas that we humans consider to be important. We accept these changes and, in general, are not bothered by the fact that the change has occurred.
We are only at the beginning of discovering and implementing the full range of capabilities of AI. The progress that has occurred so far has led some people to begin serious discussions about computers becoming more intelligent than humans over a very broad range of problem solving and task accomplishing activities that currently require the use of brain power. Some people worry about a coming Technological Singularity, a time when AI-based computers have more human-like intelligence than humans over the full broad range of human intellectual activities (Wikipedia, 2021c, link).
You and I just happen to be living at a time when AI and electronic digital computers have been developed, and are increasing rapidly in their combined capabilities. My dream for this oncoming future is that Homo Sapiens will make effective use of our continuing rapid technological progress to produce a good and sustainable quality of life for themselves, and also to create a balance with nature in which a huge range of forms of life are preserved and prosper.
American Museum of Natural History (2021). DNA: Comparing humans and chimps. Retrieved 4/19/2021 from https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/human-origins/understanding-our-past/dna-comparing-humans-and-chimps.
Exploratorium (2009). Tracing fossil finds : A Hominid timeline. Retrieved 4/20/2021 from https://annex.exploratorium.edu/evidence/lowbandwidth/INT_hominid_timeline.html.
Greenwood, B. (2014). The contribution of vaccination to global health: past, present and future. The Royal Society Publishing. Retrieved 4/19/2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4024226/.
Wikipedia (2021a). A brief history of vaccination. Retrieved 4/17/2021 from https://www.immune.org.nz/vaccines/vaccine-development/brief-history-vaccination.
Wikipedia (2021b). History of writing. Retrieved 4/17/2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing.
Wikipedia (2021c). Technological singularity. Retrieved 4/17/2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity.
World Organization for Animal Health (11/22/2018). Eradication isn’t the end of the Rinderpest story. Retrieved 4/19/2021 from https://www.oie.int/en/for-the-media/press-releases/detail/article/eradication-isnt-the-end-of-the-rinderpest-story/.
David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now published by ISTE as Empowered Learner). He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles.