Strong and Weak AI

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ask several people to define artificial intelligence (AI) and you'll get several different definitions. If some of them are tech people and the others are just regular folks, the definitions will vary even more. Some might say that it means human-like robots. You might get the answer that it is the digital assistant on their countertop or inside their mobile device.

One way of differentiating AI that I don't often hear is by the two categories of weak AI and strong AI.

Weak AI (also known as “Narrow AI”) simulates intelligence. These technologies use algorithms and programmed responses and generally are made for a specific task. When you ask a device to turn on a light or what time it is or to find a channel on your TV, you're using weak AI. The device or software isn't doing any kind of "thinking" though the response might seem to be smart (as in many tasks on a smartphone). You are much more likely to encounter weak AI in your daily life.

Strong AI is closer to mimicking the human brain. At this point, we could say that strong AI is “thinking” and "learning" but I would keep those terms in quotation marks. Those definitions of strong AI might also include some discussion of technology that learns and grows over time which brings us to machine learning (ML), which I would consider a subset of AI.

ML algorithms are becoming more sophisticated and it might excite or frighten you as a user that they are getting to the point where they are learning and executing based on the data around them. This is called "unsupervised ML." That means that the AI does not need to be explicitly programmed. In the sci-fi nightmare scenario, the AI no longer needs humans. Of course that is not even close to true today as the AI requires humans to set up the programming, supply the hardware and its power. I don't fear the AI takeover in the near future.

But strong AI and ML can go through huge amounts of data that it is connected to and find useful patterns. Some of those are patterns and connections that itis unlikely that a human would find. Recently, you may have heard of the attempts to use AI to find a coronavirus vaccine. AI can do very tedious, data-heavy and time-intensive tasks in a much faster timeframe.

If you consider what your new smarter car is doing when it analyzes the road ahead, the lane lines, objects, your speed, the distance to the car ahead and hundreds or thousands of other factors, you see AI at work. Some of that is simpler weak AI, but more and more it is becoming stronger. Consider all the work being done on autonomous vehicles over the past two decades, much of which has found its way into vehicles that still have drivers.

Of course, cybersecurity and privacy become key issues when data is shared. You may feel more comfortable in allowing your thermostat to learn your habits or your car to learn about how you drive and where you drive than you are about letting the government know that same data. Discover the level of data we share online dong financial operations or even just our visiting sites, making purchases and our search history, and you'll find the level of paranoia rising. I may not know who you are reading this article, but I suspect someone else knows and is more interested in knowing than me.

Converged Learning

Multi-modal courses that combine online and on-ground (classroom-based, face-to-face) students have been around for more than a decade under a variety of names. Hybrid, hybrid-flexible, HyFlex, blended are all terms used for course designs that allow for some flexibility. 

Most campuses now offer online and on-ground sections of some courses. Some schools offer a hybrid course section that meets on both modes. At New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) their approach has been called "converged learning." Particularly in this time of closed campuses and pandemic response, the transition to fully remote learning has been uneven on many campuses. At NJIT and many other campuses K-20 they are both preparing to welcome students back to campus in the fall and also planning for the possibility of a limited return or remaining fully online.

The goal is to deliver high-quality education in an environment safe for all members of the community. Technology-enhanced learning definitely is part of any of the possible scenarios campuses will find themselves in for the fall 2020 semester and possibly in the years that follow.

I started working at NJIT in 2000 and the university already had almost two decades of experience before the online wave of the 21st century had fully formed. NJIT created the virtual classroom in the 1980s and moved like many other colleges through the correspondence model to instructional television to content on VHS, CDs and DVDs.In 2013, converged learning became their educational model in an attempt to break down the distinction between face-to-face and remote learning.

In true converged learning, students attend the same class at the same time either in person or virtually. It allows faculty to see, interact with, and work synchronously with all students "attending class." Ideally, students have the same educational experience regardless of their physical location. Unlike registering for a course labeled as online, on-ground or hybrid, students can make that choice for any class session.

NJIT did not abandon its more traditional online learning initiatives which can accommodate students at different times and distant locations. New Jersey has been hit very hard by the pandemic and though the situation has improved and we hope to see further improvement throughout the summer, the number of students physically classrooms this fall could be reduced. The converged learning model allows students (perhaps especially those with preexisting conditions or concerns about in-person attendance) to choose when to be in a classroom and when to attend class remotely.

There has long been concern about how the academic standards will be consistent in online versus on-ground versions of a course. Converged courses have course content and learning outcomes that are independent of delivery
mode. Registration is the same way whether they want to attend by coming to the classroom, logging into the class from their dorms or nearby apartments, or joining the class from another city, state or country. Admission, registration procedures, and costs are the same regardless of the location from which they attend the class. Those in the classroom
experience the delivery of the course content as they would in a traditional class — except they are joined via synchronous streaming by other students who are taking the course from a distance, anywhere in the world.

This approach does require additional resources - from video in the classroom to teaching assistants. For example, at NJIT offline digital learning include Computer Assisted Design technology in programs of the College of Architecture and Design, Adaptive Learning software in mathematics, chemistry, and other areas. The university has needed to move further than before into the computer scoring of essays and other written forms, the automated grading of exams, and the asynchronous class management in all classes. (NJIT had been using Moodle earlier as its LMS and has now moved to Canvas.) 

   download free pdf of book

This convergence of the physical campus and the virtual campus seems to be - particularly at this unusual time - to be a logical consequence of the technological transformation in higher education.

Hybrid-flexible course designs have been used successfully for more than a decade at many higher education institutions around the world with a wide variety of courses. Some schools call this “HyFlex,” The initial impetus for developing a Hybrid-Flexible approach is often a need to serve both online and on-ground students with a limited set of resources (time, faculty, space).

It is far better when the multi-modal delivery solution gives students the opportunity to choose which mode to participate in from session to session. Students then do create their own unique hybrid experience.

The free book noted here and materials online at NJIT and other campuses will give you a sense of how these flexible designs are evolving.

The change in pedagogy required of faculty in converged learning is a whole other topic to be explored and certainly builds upon what has been learned in the past decades of online learning and from the more recent use of MOOCs.

Contact Tracing for Misinformation

Since January 2020, COVID-19 has been the main topic of news. Despite attempts to keep health information accurate, misinformation has been put out from amateur and speculative sources all the way up to President Trump.

Facebook has been blamed along with other social media sites for allowing misinformation to spread. himself. Many websites from traditional media to social media have been trying to connect people to accurate information from health experts and keep harmful misinformation from spreading. It is a difficult task, even with the best technology, to monitor millions of users creating content every second and even more often reposting other information.

Facebook has said that they have directed over 2 billion people to resources from the World Health Organization in their "COVID-19 Information Center" and via pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more.

When a piece of content is rated false by fact-checkers, they reduce its distribution and show warning labels with more context, and they can use similarity detection methods to identify duplicates of debunked stories. 

I heard on an episode of the Make Me Smart podcast that Rep. Adam Schiff (not a Facebook fan) asked other tech giants (Google, YouTube, Twitter) to follow Facebook's example by contacting users who’ve interacted with misinformation. 

This is a kind of contact tracing for misinformation. In public health contact tracing, staff work with a patient to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe while they may have been infectious. The public health staff then warn these exposed individuals (contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible.

In public health or online protecting patient/poster and contacts is important. Generally in health situations contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection but are not told the identity of the person who may have exposed them.

YouTube announced it would add informational panels with information from its fact-checkers to videos in the US, an expansion of a program it launched in India and Brazil last year.

Twitter introduced its COVID-19 content policies earlier this month, which require users to remove tweets with content that includes misinformation about coronavirus treatments or misleading content meant to look like it’s from authorities and recently updated their policy to encompass tweets that may “incite people to action and cause widespread panic, social unrest or large-scale disorder,” such as burning 5G towers.

Apps in Education 2011 to 2020

In 2011, I made presentations at several colleges about the use of mobile apps in education and teaching in an "app world." At that time, apps were a big topic in the tech world but not a big topic in education. That presentation (it is on my Slideshare site) included the slide below where education doesn't even appear as a category unless you consider it to be part of the 5% of "other" app consumption. Clearly, games and social networking dominated usage at that time and they both still garner a high percentage of app use.

app use chart

How we were using apps in 2011

Showing this slide to college faculty reinforced their idea that apps are not for education. Of course, in 2011 apps were also not for common banking and financial use, medical records, and other "serious" computing.

That has certainly changed. But has it changed for education?

Reviewing my own 2011 presentation predictions, I said that I thought apps would come to education in three waves: Adoption, Adaption, and Creation.

Adoption was schools and educators adopting existing apps that had some education features or were designed for education. The obvious one then and now was apps for learning management systems. Blackboard was the first I used but now Canvas and all the other players have them. Adoption was not immediate. The two colleges I worked at then both chose not to offer the mobile version. Faculty could not see how you could possibly take a course on your phone. But I had a graduate student that year who told me that she did her coursework for me on her phone in her free time while she was at her night job. We were using Moodle and she just resized the web pages. I couldn't see how that worked but I knew an app would have made it better.

The second wave was adaption - using apps not specifically designed for education in courses. That was being done by individual teachers as they discovered and bought into the app world. Adaption requires some pedagogical changes. Mobile devices still were not acceptable (even banned) in some classrooms in 2011. It was the rare faculty member who said "Take out your phone..." and asked students to use it for class. 

Now in this time of the pandemic, it is clear to schools, teachers, students, and parents how "educational" phones or tablets can be. Schools are supplying tablets the way we once supplied laptops. But even laptops are using apps. I'm sure app downloads are up in the past two months. App versions of Zoom and others have become common tools not only for educators but or personal use.

That move from personal to professional (business or education) use is critical to adoption or adaption/adaptation. As teachers started using their phones and apps more in their everyday screen time, the move to use them for teaching became easier.

apps in education

Something that made faculty fearful in 2011

Those 2011 audiences weren't sold on using apps in the first half of my presentation. They weren't using apps for themselves. Some did not have a smartphone. But they were hearing "There's an app for that" from friends, colleagues their students and on television commercials. They knew it was coming.

I caught their interest when I shifted to talking about why - even though I was an app evangelist - apps are NOT online courses or would virtual schools in the near future. (I find that educators generally like the status quo.) There was an article I pointed to that was headlined “My Teacher Is An App.” A provocative headline but the article did follow my point that things were changing but we wouldn't be there for quite a while.

The article said “In a radical rethinking of what it means to go to school, states and districts nationwide are launching online public schools that let students from kindergarten to 12th grade take some—or all—of their classes from their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. Other states and districts are bringing students into brick-and-mortar schools for instruction that is largely computer-based and self-directed.”

That was not common in 2011 and still wasn't common in 2019 - but it is a lot closer to being true in the spring of 2020.

I wondered then if apps would be driving curriculum or would curriculum be driving app development. I'm pleased that the latter seems to be generally the case now.

I asked the audience if they believed that this reliance on smartphones and apps will "produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it because they will not practice their memory. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many Socrates on the things without instruction and written word, will, therefore, seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with since they are not wise but only appear wise.”

Those in the audience who did agree were right in line with Socrates in 340 BC since those were his words on his belief about the dangers of the written word. Socrates was wrong about the adoption of the written word into education.

My third wave was just beginning to form in 2011. That was colleges creating their own apps. I had a few examples of colleges adopting and adapting things like parking and events using commercial apps and GPS to navigate campuses or scheduling apps for campus calendars, courses, or facilities scheduling.

But do schools need to create their own apps or just purchase commercial ones that can be branded? I looked back to the development of school websites as an example. Initially, most schools bought a package or a vendor but along the way many schools took it on as an in-house operation, perhaps using some commercial products - a combination of creation and adaptation. 

In 2011, may school websites weren't even dynamic enough ready for viewing on phones or tablets. But schools were creating their own apps and courses about how to develop apps were becoming a hot topic.

In 2020, there are plenty of no-code tools for app development (Airtable, Bubble, Zapier, Coda, Webflow) so that it doesn't take a wizard developer to make a fully functioning app. 

If you are a teacher or student at any level K-20, the chances are excellent that you are using apps in your courses and on your campus.