“Will knowledge become obsolete?” asks Ken Jennings from Jeopardy

I attended the mLearning conference (mlearncon) last week in Austin, an interesting conference in the over 35°C heat and over-air conditioned (19°C) meeting rooms.

What is m-learning you ask? It is learning through educational technology using a tablet (iPad) or smart phone. The courses are short (less than 10 minutes, most often less than 4) and interactive using games and quizzes.

The key note speaker was Ken Jennings, the 74-time Jeopardy champion, with total game show earnings of over $4 million. I wondered what he would know about m-learning? As it turned out, his talk wasn’t about m-learning but how knowledge is acquired and used. He is a good speaker and had some interesting takes on the subject.
Mlearn June pic 1

He started off by saying that we are getting to the point where it does not much matter how much we know but how fast we can get the answer from the web. We are not there yet but our value framework has started to shift. He gave as an example how we remember phone numbers less because of the smart phone. It has all the phone numbers and we just press a button to activate it. He asked what other knowledge items will we outsource?

He smiled when he recounted that one of the benefits of his long preparation for Jeopardy is that he can claim to be the world’s best Mormon bartender as he had already memorized all the cocktails for the Potent Potables category in Jeopardy.

He also talked about how his knowledge became obsolete as a knowledge-expert when Watson (the IBM computer) beat him and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy. There were some unfair aspects about playing against a computer such as pressing the buzzer. Watson sent an electric pulse, to indicate that it had the answer, which was much faster than the human finger pressing the buzzer. Also, Watson had access to much of the knowledge in the world (200 million pages of information) and an effective search engine at its “finger tips” that no human brain would be able to store or search. As well, the Watson team developed a complex algorithm that located the most daily doubles. Putting aside the fact that Watson is a great Jeopardy player, the real significance is that such wealth of information can be used for more important purposes that need to sort through immense amounts of data and come up with a recommendation based on the data such as medical diagnosis where it is successfully being used.

But Watson did get a few (not many) Jeopardy question wrong, the worst of these was “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, its second largest for a World War II battle”. Watson answered Toronto when the answer should have been Chicago. Watson can’t fix itself or improve its information. It is people who do that and have to fix such lapses.

This is OK for a Jeopardy question but not so with for example when the same technology is used in medicine. A medical diagnosis typically needs more than facts. It also needs a doctor’s intuition on what is going on with the patient emotionally as well as physically, not to mention what the patient has been exposed to in the past. Jennings said that during the taping of the show, the audience was all IBM staff who then analyzed Watson’s answers to improve its process of probabilities to get to the right answer. So Watson is a collection of many brains and paths. On the taped Jeopardy shows, Watson was a large screen turned 90 degrees.

While the web searches provide lots of information, Ken highlighted that sometimes you need the answer immediately. As an example he mentioned the 10 year old girl vacationing in Thailand. While she was at the beach she recalled the signs are of tsunami, many of which she saw in front of her. She told the lifeguard and got people off that beach in Phuket thereby saving them from the tsunami. This is one example proving that we need more than just the facts available on the web. Knowledge and experience is also needed.

Ken’s speech was interesting and he seemed to be a down-to-earth guy. He had immense patience with the long line up of people after the speech, who wanted selfies taken with him. But IMHO he didn’t answer the question how the web fits into the human knowledge paradigm.

My view is that the web is a good resource for finding the facts from a number of different perspectives. However, in my opinion knowing the facts is not the only requirement for human knowledge. It is human intuition and experience added to that mix that results in true knowledge. That is not to denigrate factual knowledge, but it is only one part of human knowledge.

What are your thoughts on this?

Catherine Aczel Boivie
Catherine Aczel Boivie
Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie is a widely respected executive with over 30 years of experience in the leadership of advancing the value of information technology as a business and education enabler. Prior executive roles includes: CEO Inventure Solutions and Senior Vice President of Information Technology/Facility Management for Vancity Credit Union; SVP of IT and Chief Information Officer at Pacific Blue Cross and Canadian Automobile Association of British Columbia. Catherine is also an experienced board member serving on several boards, including those of Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-television Services, Canada Foundation for Innovation and MedicAlert Canada. Dr. Boivie is the founding Chair and President of the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Association of Canada that has over 400 Chief Information Officers as members across Canada. She has been publicly recognized for her contributions, including being named as one of Canada's top 100 most powerful women by the Women's Executive Network in the "Trailblazers and Trendsetters" category and the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee medal for being a "catalyst for technology transformation".

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