Are robots the teachers of the future? Are we going to lose (all) our jobs to artificial intelligence machines? Is the Digital Singularity human’s inescapable future?
These questions are on the cutting edge when it comes to the relationship between human cognition and digital technologies. Hence, they also affect the way we glimpse the future of education. These subjects are closely related to questions about the human cognitive system: how do we perceive the world? How do we learn? What makes us cognizers, in the deepest sense of the term? How do we experience the world we inhabit?
Our close relationship with technologies transmutes us into cyborgs, according to the philosopher Andy Clark, author of Natural born Cyborgs (2003) and one of the developers of the Extended Mind Thesis. Clark’s thesis advocates that humans extend their cognitive systems through technologies, not only digital but of all kinds. And this ability to integrate these artifacts into our cognitive circuitry, linked to our capacity to transform the environment and be altered by it, would be some of the main elements to distinguish us from other animals. As natural beings, we are in a continuous circular movement with nature, its creatures, plants, all living beings. This connection between experience and nature is part of the philosophy of John Dewey and some ideas that resemble his are also present in the theses of philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hubert Dreyfus. They hold that we are much more than computer-like processing machines, defending that there is much more to human cognition than information processing. Or, as the philosopher Alva Noë and the psychologist James Gibson would say, perception and action cannot be segregated, because we act in order to perceive: without action, there would be no perception at all. This perspective is connected to the enactive cognition approach, one of the contemporary research lines linked to cognition and the human mind.
The extended and the enactive cognitive approaches show we are far from being replaceable by robots. Unless artificial intelligence machines become more than input-output information crunchers, they will not be able to simulate some of the most important features of human cognition, and it will be hard for them to substitute us in a range of activities in which our experience is irreplaceable. In what concerns teaching and learning, emotions are a fundamental part of the process – according to philosophers like Dreyfus and the neuroscientist António Damásio, author of Descartes’ Error and The Strange Order of Things. Robots don’t have feelings. Therefore, machines are not able to actually learn anything. So, we could ask: are “creatures” not able to learn skilled to teach? Unless they become sentient, conscious creatures, these systems will probably not be able to become teachers, and will remain, at best, auxiliaries to teaching. So, as these features remain far from reality concerning A.I., we can give a shot at the question in the first paragraph of this text: robots may be the teachers of a distant future, but they are certainly not able to replace our teachers in the present.
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