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Technological education - man versus machine

Professor David Meudoser from Tel Aviv University investigates how children act in technological environments and what this means for human consciousness

A robot made of Lego blocks (see link at the end of the article)
A robot made of Lego blocks (see link at the end of the article)

By Ido Gandel

Few academics display robot toys and colorful Legos on their office desks. Professor David Meudoser, head of the science teaching department at the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, is one of them, and he has an excellent reason for doing so. With the help of such unique work tools, and a wide variety of experiments and research methods, Meudoser and his colleagues study and decipher the ability of humans, and of children in particular, to understand, create and act in technological-artificial environments, or as he calls them: "environments made by human intelligence".

"There is no more humane profession than technology," says Meudoser. "Only humans create technology, and they do it for other humans, to solve problems and to improve the quality of life." Even the negative consequences of technology, such as damage to the environment, are ultimately the result of human creation, and they are responsible for finding a solution for them - based on a thorough understanding of the issue.
Until about 60 or 70 years ago, the separation between the inanimate world and the living world was quite clear, almost unequivocal. With the appearance and development of computers and other electronic means of control, the boundaries became blurred: machines and devices of all kinds began to react to what was happening in their environment, act and even make decisions independently, starting with the electric kettle that turns itself off when the water boils and ending with flight control systems. How do humans deal with this unprecedented phenomenon? What insights and ways of thinking do they develop in order to deal with this and how? Is it possible, through appropriate education, to promote this learning for the benefit of man as an individual, and for the advancement of technological creation in general? These kinds of questions preoccupy Meudoser and the other researchers in the department, and despite the almost philosophical generality of the subject, the research results are tangible and useful, and some of them have already made their way into field experiments and official curricula in kindergartens and elementary schools.

To my question, if it makes sense to invest in technological education for children when they are already growing up in a highly technological world and understand it no less well than the adults, Meudoser answers in the affirmative. According to him, the functional understanding of the technological environment, such as the correct way to operate an advanced cell phone, is only part of the picture and must be completed through theoretical understanding. You can perhaps compare it to a small child who learns to cross the road near his house only when the traffic light is green. This is a relatively superficial understanding, of a certain scenario, and not of the deeper rule that applies to all roads and traffic lights wherever they are. In fact, one of the prominent areas of research in the department in recent years is the development of technological perception in children between the ages of five and seven, at the same time when they also develop insights into mental processes that occur in other human beings, known in the professional language as Theory of Mind. So what does the Theory of Artificial Mind look like, the concept of the artificial "soul" of smart machines?

The modern and smart technology may be young, says Meudoser, but the thought behind it is not. The human brain has not changed biologically over the past hundreds and thousands of years. Every artificial object was born in the mind of some person, and the potential to create and understand virtual and technical worlds like the ones we live in today was also present in our ancestors, although it was not manifested. The research framework of thinking and technological skills, established in the science teaching department about ten years ago, is designed to understand and refine the components of this potential, both for academic understanding and for practical use. "We are not interested in turning all the children into engineers," he says with a smile. The applied focus of the research is not the development of the skill of using any unique technology, but the promotion of the basic and deep thought processes that allow a person to conduct himself optimally in a world of technology, and to find and choose, similar to the way engineers do, optimal solutions to problems in the face of constraints and requirements, and it does not matter if that person He is a doctor, engineer or farmer. However, there is no doubt that the field of technology will also benefit from the matter, and in the State of Israel, which places such a strong emphasis on high-tech and development, this is a very important goal.

Unfortunately, desire is separate and reality is separate. Technological education in the state education system has been neglected for many years, and even though it has recently returned to consciousness, Meudoser believes that there is still much room for improvement. Technology has an interest and a challenge, he explains, which is why children grasp it so quickly on their own. But as mentioned, this is only part of the learning. A truly deep understanding also requires theoretical, reflective thinking, which does not take things for granted and which can only be achieved and developed in an educational setting. Also, deep insights are created and arise when the learner receives a rich and varied background, as well as time to assimilate, reflect and create. In the education system, a contradictory trend is sometimes felt, according to which the most important thing is to "finish the material" and meet fixed goals such as the famous placement tests. Even in the academy, among some of the teaching students, there is a tendency to look for practical, specific and immediate solutions, and to abandon the overall vision and the "science fiction", in the words of Meudosser, that create a vision worth striving for.

Meanwhile, in the experimental laboratories, things are taking place that would have been considered science fiction in their own right, until recently: small children assemble robots from Lego bricks with the ability to move and program them to act in complex ways with the help of a computer. At these ages, Meudoser points out, children have not yet developed the abstraction skills necessary to understand the concepts of software and programming, and certainly are not capable of developing software code in the conventional ways. Moreover, they are unable to give an accurate verbal description of their actions and thoughts during the experiment. The researchers conclude these things in a complex process of weighing and analyzing verbal reports, video recordings and other sources of information. These are the unique development tools, which the researchers created to allow children to program a robot despite their age limitations, and they became a product to be used in schools as a teaching tool.

Meudoser and his thinking and research partners over the years, Prof. David Chen, Dr. Sharona T. Levy, Dr. Vadim Tellis, Esi Kuperman and Keren Perzel, focus on the field of education, but it is easy to see how their products could bring great benefit in other fields as well apart from the obvious advantage that the students will enter the job market equipped with an improved technological understanding. For example, people of all ages tend to humanize intelligent machines and talk about them as having consciousness, if not actually talk to them. The information collected by Miodosser and his colleagues could therefore help the science of psychology in deciphering the concept of human consciousness itself. The field of human engineering will also benefit from a better familiarity with how humans deal with technologies.

In this context, I asked Professor Meudosser if the growing tendency in the consumer market to create products that are convenient, user-friendly and increasingly simple to operate does not, in fact, harm the ability of young users to recognize and understand the technology that underpins them. His answer was negative. This is similar to the old debate on the use of calculators in classrooms, he explained. Does the ease of performing the calculations in them harm mathematical thinking, or contribute to it? If human ability had a defined "ceiling", good work tools would bring us closer to it without being able to break through it, and in fact would not advance us in a real way. But since such a ceiling does not exist (to the best of our knowledge), the more our technology improves and becomes more accessible and widespread, it will carry us higher and further, into realms of knowledge and understanding that seem to us, for the time being, as science fiction.

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