Thursday, December 26, 2013

Centaurs, the Game of Chess, and "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson

Author Clive Thompson
Trying to catch up on my reading over Winter Break, I picked up "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson. I heard a mini-review on NPR, and the basic idea is that Thompson has a generally positive take on the way technology is shaping our minds and making us smarter. Given that we tend to hear lots of doom and gloom about how technology is making us all dumber, I was happy to read that someone had a different view and set about to provide examples of this. As educators, we are bombarded with messages about how "kids can't do this [[ insert traditionally defined 'basic' skill here ]], or that they no longer know that [[ insert culturally-dependent fact here ]], I was happy to immerse myself in a different viewpoint.

By the way, don't let the first paragraph of this post lead you believe that I'm quite as pretentious I sound. Lest you think that I ONLY read important treatments of important educational issues that I ONLY get from NPR, keep this in mind: I'm not finished with the book just yet, as I keep getting drawn re-watch the "Ron and Tammi" episodes on "Parks and Recreation". I can assure you, I am spending plenty of time sitting on the couch binge-watching "Parks and Rec," "American Horror Story," and "Supernatural." Technology is making us smarter? I may ironically be the non-example to Thompson's argument. 

As I was saying, I haven't finished the book yet, but here's the basic idea. With every technological advancement (the written word, the printing press), we have heard the same predictions of the loss of memory and overall "dumbing down" of society. However, we have seen the same pattern with every advancement. As Thompson puts it, technology inevitably "pushes us toward new forms of behavior while nudging us away from older, familiar ones."

We cast away behaviors and skills we no longer need in favor of more useful ones. For example, I have always thought it curious that people get very upset when "kids today" have trouble reading a traditional clock face, as they have digital clocks all around them. We don't get similarly upset when they don't know how to read a sundial.

Thompson argues that technology is actually augmenting our intelligence, extending our abilities
to see more, communicate more, and retain more and make us radically smarter than we ever would have been before. He uses a really interesting extended example of the current state of the game of chess. After being defeated by IBM's Big Blue supercomputer in a chess tournament, chess champion Garry Kasparov had an idea: what if you humans and computers played together? What if the strengths of human players could be enhanced by the strengths of the computer?Humans are able to use intuition, creativity, and "get in the head of" other players, while computers are good at "brute force" play: calculating trillions of possible moves, holding searchable databases of historical games.

An Advanced Chess tournament in Benidorm, Spain, 2007
Thus technology in this case led to "Advanced Chess," a new offshoot the game in which each player can be aided by technology such as a smartphone or a laptop. In this model, relatively inexpensive technology has created new champions who are not only adept at the game unaided by technology, but who also know how to use the technology to their advantage. Thompson cites an examples of a player who was trounced by Kasparov 4-0 in a traditional
 tournament, but then played him to a 3-3 tie in an advanced tournament a short time later.  The technology is helping these players enhance their abilities, and average traditional players can become champions in advanced chess. Interestingly, these players are nicknamed Centaurs, the mythical hybrid half-horse, half human creatures endowed with the strengths of each.

There's also an fascinating bit about the use of technology in learning chess, and a relative explosion of (traditional) chess grandmasters in the past to decades. Prior to computers coming on the scene, becoming a chess grandmaster was extremely slow and arduous. However, the ability to simulate games, experiment with new strategies, and access the historical records of past matches through relatively inexpensive software has greatly accelerated the number of grandmasters as well as led to far younger players achieving that level.

Evidently "gamifying education" applies to learning chess as well. Is it even possible to "gamify" a game?

At any rate, this post is really only a description of Thompson's first chapter. In the book, he lays out the specific three ways he sees technology making us smarter: The extending of our memory and habitual recording of our lives, finding connections between ideas that lead to more connections and more collaborations, and the explosive amount of writing for a public audience that occurs every day. I'll likely be writing more on these topics, since they fit quite nicely with our  conception of the positive effects of 1:1 learning.

But that's all for now. I have to make some headway getting through the Matt Smith episodes of "Doctor Who."

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