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Can Artificial Intelligence Replace the Human Touch?

I attended the sixth annual Phoenix Mobility Conference in September at Arizona State University. This is the second year in a row that a university hosted the event; last year’s conference was at Grand Canyon University.

Interestingly, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR)—not mobile technology—were the focuses for much of this year’s conference. At times, it seemed mobile tech was almost incidental outside of presentations on headset technologies for gaming which, one might presume, has research potential as well.

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Interaction? Should It?

At the risk of using a non sequitur, ASU is a natural fit for discussions about the roles AI and AR can play. The campus is about as connected as one can get, a point emphasized by the keynote speaker Sethuraman Panchanathan (“Panch” to his students and colleagues), who is the face and force behind knowledge enterprise at ASU.

Touching, from human and artificial intelligence
The human touch is superior to one from artificial intelligence.

“Imagine AI giving keynote talks like this,” Dr. Panchanathan said during his keynote. AI’s ability to collect and assess a huge range of data would make keynotes more informative and accurate. Using sophisticated user interface and deep intelligence capabilities, a keynote would anticipate and answer all the questions an audience would have. It would be so much better!

Would it?

I kept wondering if Dr. Panch underestimates the power of human communication skills, including his own. I was drawn in by his enthusiasm and I’m not even a techie or ASU alum. It was interesting to hear how ASU has taken the lead in the knowledge industry, even though at times the keynote sounded like an extended advertisement for the school.

But would I have preferred a presentation from Commander Data? Probably not–and let’s not forget, that character longed to make the ultimate transition into a human.

It’s seeing a well-prepared, live lecture that captures the attention of “other” people we need to persuade to embrace technology, another point Panchanathan made. Let’s leave the presentations to the people involved in the work. Make the artificial intelligence and smart devices available for follow-up when human experts aren’t available.

Will Writers Be Replaced by Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence?

Deep learning was another hot topic at the conference. For those who aren’t familiar with it, deep learning is a part of AI that studies and learns from data to continuously adapt. It’s sort of the opposite of task-oriented machine learning that’s displaced factory jobs once held by real people. Here’s a history of it from MIT Technology Review.

There was some talk of AI being used to create written content, as for websites, blogs, even film scripts. As a writer, I find this alarming.

I also think it’s counterproductive. I don’t know how much AI can or should learn, at least about the human condition. From what I’ve read, AI-produced scripts are pretty bad. Can they get better? Honestly, I hope not. AI should primarily, if not exclusively, be used as a tool.

Let’s put it underground to detect movements–natural and otherwise–that can trigger earthquakes and give people advance warning. Let’s continue to put it in technologies like self-driving automobiles to make traffic flow better and eliminate human errors that range from distracted driving to wrong-way driving (a particularly weird and dangerous problem in the Phoenix area).

If AI’s champions see a role in influencing the human condition, use it to build upon it rather than replace it. Use AI to help people with disabilities successfully navigate new territories, whether it’s practicing to overcome severe anxiety or learning to use an artificial limb to its fullest. How about an AI device to teach new languages more naturally than repeating phrases? Or replace a nervous parent trying to teach an equally nervous teenager to drive?

We need to be smart about how we plan to use AI and keep our expectations to utility, not replacing functions best done by people. Aside from Elon Musk’s warnings about AI driving the next world war, AI is a tricky tool that requires careful planning, security, and above all, control.

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Substitute Lessons

teacher photo
Substitute teaching sometimes means figuring out vague lesson plans.

I’ve been taking assignments as a substitute teacher in the Scottsdale school district the past couple of months.

While it’s relatively easy to qualify—deliver college transcripts, pass a background check, pay processing fees—it’s not quite as easy to figure out how to actually substitute teach. Many thanks go to teachers who leave good lesson plans behind!

Substitute teaching is probably the least-respected job in education, an area that’s always been terribly under-appreciated. Here in Arizona, where teacher pay is about the lowest in the nation, the pay for subs is at least over minimum wage but barely over the minimum wage hike proposed in Arizona Proposition 206.

There are no benefits attached to the job. Subbing is generally derided as babysitting or worse. Disrespecting subs is part of popular culture.

But as the economy here continues to slouch, I’m willing to put up an hour’s pay (nothing more) that better-qualified substitutes will pop up, particularly among the unemployed/under-employed over-50 crowd.

School Districts Should Provide Substitute Lessons

One thing my own experience points to is a need for some kind of training for substitute teachers.

The orientation I attended was for all new school district employee. Substitute training amount to learning to access listings for substitute requests. There was virtually no discussion on how to be a substitute teacher.

Substitute education can be done. A brief online course that provides information on classroom management, special education, and normal school functions for each district would be very helpful. For example:

  • A tutorial for the Smartboard software, which I figured out with some help from 5th graders and now love to use. Maybe even give us account access to Smartboards?
  • The breakfast routine
  • Behavior rules like the “clip-up/clip-down” system and the “attention clap”
  • Should doors be locked and lights out when we leave the classroom?
  • Should the last teacher to use a computer lab shut everything down?
  • What kinds of special education require kids to leave the classroom? At what age do they go on their own or are pulled out of class?

And so on. If you think these questions have obvious answers, consider trying to figure all this out with 30 kids jumping around and pelting you with questions!

I wasn’t completely in the dark. My son has attended public schools since first grade. Now in high school, he told me I was crazy to consider substitute teaching. I’m glad to report he’s wrong. Because for the most part, the kids really are all right.

Schools Don’t Need Nicholson Baker Substitutes

Substitute teaching is the topic of a new book from the fiction writer Nicholson Baker. Baker did a month of “undercover” work as a substitute teacher in Maine.

I hope to pick up his book from the library when it becomes available. In the meantime, I’ve read two reviews, one in the New York Times and one in The Atlantic. The Times’ review focuses on Baker’s sympathy with “backpack-laden” students and his recommendations to improve their lot, such as later start times and whether kindergartners are physically ready to write.

Both the Times and Atlantic, which gives Baker’s book a downright scathing review, highlight his misplaced critiques of public education.

I don’t care how smart you are, or how many books you’ve published. Being a sub is no substitute for understanding and performing the real work in education.

A substitute teacher’s priority is to follow a teacher’s lesson plan and other instructions. The last thing a substitute should do is undermine the teacher, the school, and yes, the education system itself. The classroom is not the place for this particular battle. Which is what Baker did throughout his month-long “research” into education.

According to Atlantic‘s Sara Mosle, a veteran teacher from New York and Newark, NJ schools, Baker committed some pretty grave errors. I think some may tread into illegal behavior:

  • He urged a 12-year old boy to reduce “whatever medication” he takes. Mosle wonders how he knows the kid doesn’t need it if he’s only seen him on medication.
  • He told students they don’t need to sign out to use the bathroom. This is actually a security measure taken in the event of a school lockdown so that all students’ whereabouts are known.
  • He told one student she’d be better off with homeschooling.
  • He goes wildly off-topic on assignments.

I guess that last one isn’t so bad, but the point of learning about philosophers like Rosseau is to understand the concept of citizenship. If I were the teacher responsible for meeting the curriculum, I’d be more than a little frustrated by this dismissal of an important thinker and writer.

Small wonder most teachers leave behind “busy work” like worksheets.

The Schools are Mostly All Right

I honestly think the schools where I’ve taught are doing the right thing most of the time.

Baker complains about teachers who yell. I’m not a yeller myself. But he only objects when it’s from a female teacher.

A male teacher who “raised his voice” is lauded as an example of real-world experience. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

He also objects to a (female) teacher who insists the kids sit up straight with eyes front. It’s too militaristic, he says.

But kids need to be reminded to focus. What’s wrong with that? A friend of mine recently remarked that her smart and charming five-year-old she loves to pieces “has the attention span of a flea.” Clearly her kindergarten teacher understands this because this girl loves school.

I admit, it’s a little startling to return to an elementary-school setting. I once wondered about teacher aides (also female) instructing first-graders to march from morning and lunch recess to their classrooms. However, the kids seemed to like it. Why else were they smiling?

Baker calls such teachers “paid bullies,” perhaps because they threatened the kids with losing recess. But I’ve never seen misbehaving kids lose more than a few minutes of recess.

Are Scottsdale schools perfect? Hell no. I pulled my kid out of a public school kindergarten because of problems we both had with his teacher. But he returned to another public school for first grade and has since remained in the public school system. Now he’s getting college credits for Spanish 201—as a tenth grader.

Schools do a lot of good with ever-diminshing resources. They live with constant threats that these resources will be taken away through tax cuts and schemes like Proposition 123 to reduce the amount of money the state owes to schools.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve seen:

  • A visually impaired boy working well in a mainstream classroom with some special ed tools and support.
  • Examples of kindness, like a boy who carries a chair so an unusually small classmate can reach a fountain.
  • Special ed aides who help substitute teachers with class management while overseeing their own students in the classroom.

I’ve seen kids run to hug principals, and happily greet teachers returning from  offsite training. And I’ve been thanked by a few students for teaching their class.

Expect the Best From Students and You Just Might Get It

I find that respecting students and expecting good behavior resonates with most of them. I’ve had my share of poor behavior but it’s been the exception rather than the rule. I’ve only asked kids from two classes to leave the room. Once they left, the classes went back to a semblance of normal.

I once was given a combined special ed/ESL class for kids in grades 6 to 8 while their teachers attended an off-campus training.

One kid called me a “gringa.” I challenged him right then and there. I told him I can’t have disrespect in my class. I told him he wasn’t nice, and was surprised to see the hurt on his face. Apparently no one had ever told him this.

I instructed him to go to the class next door, where the teacher told me to send misbehaving kids. Once he and an equally obnoxious buddy left—two more boys loyally followed them—the class went on quite nicely.

But you know what? These special ed and ESL students wanted to learn. They were interested in the subject they were reading about.

Then, one of the kids who left asked to return to class. I made him promise not to disrupt his classmates. He agreed and held up his end of the bargain.

Later, I told him I was glad he came back and asked him why. To avoid expulsion, he said: he’d already been suspended once this year (it was still September).

I complimented him on the work he turned in and advised him not to follow his friend. “He really isn’t a nice guy. Nice people are kinder to strangers. You can do better.”

I think he agreed. I hope he acts on this.



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Still Outsourcing Local Talent?

I attended the Phoenix Mobile Festival recently, an annual event for people who develop apps and technologies for mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, and wearable technology like smart watches. While I’m not a developer, I like to keep up on mobile developments. Since this was a local event, I was very surprised to hear a speaker praising outsourcing, a scourge that’s hurting Arizona’s efforts to become a tech leader rivaling Silicone Valley.

Banner for the Phoenix Mobile Festival
Is a technical conference the place to talk about the joys of outsourcing?

Is This the Time to Advise Talent Outsourcing?

I missed the first half of Fred von Graf’s session on “Secrets to Building a Million-Dollar Business.” I was learning about complications and time travel.

Normally, I welcome business development talks because Lord knows I can use advice on building this business, getting new (paying) clients, and networking. The title of von Graf’s session struck me as silly and cheap, but after checking out an Android development session, I figured I’d make room for a real developer and went into the Million Dollar session.

There I sat, horrified, as this person advised, over and over, to look overseas for tech teams.

I didn’t think people were still hot on outsourcing. I had read that a lot of companies have pulled out and are hiring US workers, whose training and, I suspect culture, match theirs more closely. In fact, I’ve read about companies in India that are outsourcing for US talent!

It came up from a question about where to find freelance tech teams. To get a really good idea of who works well on your project, von Graf advised hiring three teams to do the same project and pick the one that did it best.

How can I pay for that? another person asked.

Easy. Hire teams from overseas. “Their price points are much more competitive then you’ll find in the US.”

von Graf then spent several minutes extolling the virtues of overseas teams. He went on to say that he tells all his clients to hire overseas, where the work can get done for so much less. He groused about his one single client who refuses to hire foreign labor. “He’s spending so much more than he should,” he said, shaking his head.

I was livid, practically shaking.

Don’t Outsource Arizonans!

It made no sense to me. Here he is, in Arizona—a state that desperately needs jobs and encourages people to get educated for tech jobs—telling businesses in Arizona to outsource these very jobs.

von Graf isn’t unfamiliar with Arizona. He’s active in Scottsdale’s SkySong tech community. He’s been featured by GrowSouthwest, a company that nurtures entrepreneurs and independent businesses “everywhere,” but does that mean outside the Southwest, or the entire US?

I was a little relieved to hear grumbling about outsourced jobs from the audience. No one, though, challenged the idea.

Infusionsoft, which hosted the festival, is well-known in Arizona’s tech sector. It won the Pioneer Award from the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation. “This recognition is further validation of the impact we’re having on the global small-business community and the tech sector here in Arizona,” Infusionsoft’s CTO told the Phoenix Business Journal.

After the session, I discussed what I heard with two vendors at the site. One mentioned he had used overseas vendors from Poland and India. They didn’t work out so well. “We ended up redoing a lot of the work. They just couldn’t understand what we wanted.”

The owners of another business, both from India, was also bothered by outsourcing. “We only hire people in the US,” they told me. True, their clients were mostly state governments, but they also showcased a growing number of US businesses.

I’m sure von Graf is a good guy. He encouraged people to contact him after his session. He’s eager to share what he knows and to mentor small businesses in the tech sector.

But shouldn’t that also mean keeping potential jobs in Arizona? Does every business have to make a million bucks? And will this only happen by outsourcing jobs elsewhere?