Tech in Schools: Not a Cure-All

This morning the Mind/Shift website said, “It’s Time For A Deeper Conversation About How Schools Use Technology.”

… recent studies about the effect of technology on achievement have shown uninspiring results, reinvigorating the conversation about how technology is used in classrooms. Educators who have been active in this space for many years have long known that technology can be used to connect students to the broader world, give them tools to create new and interesting learning artifacts, and open up a world of digital resources. But, technology can also be used to replicate the activities and tests that have always been used in the classroom. The tension between what technology could do and what it is often used for in classrooms is at the heart of a debate over whether all the money pumped into technology is worth it.

It’s too bad no one has ever urged caution when it comes to the proliferation of technology in schools, and that it might not be as effective as people think. Oh, wait, someone did:

Education should not make the same mistake a number of industries made in the late 1980s: they turned to expensive and complex machinery to save them, only to find that the devices were not the saviors they thought.

Who said that? I did, back in the early 1990s.

Technology versus Humanity
(Image: “Technology versus Humanity,” by Gerd Leonhard, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Technology is useful, and important because it’s so ubiquitous in our modern world, but no matter how fancy it gets it’s still just an expensive tool. And far more important than the technical tools are the people — i.e., the teachers — who use them.

In case anyone is interested, I cover this in a bit more depth — as well as many other topics — in Quality Education.

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Japan Proposing to Build Solar-Power Sats

A recent Japanese plan proposes to make the solar-power satellite, a long-time staple of science fiction, a reality.

C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010 [Full Disk]
(“C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010,” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Spurred on in part by the Fukushima disaster, Japan Has A Plan To Start Using Space-based Solar Power By The 2030s.

They’ve devised a road map that describes a series of ground and orbital stations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system — which is the same output as a typical nuclear power plant. Prior to this, they’d like to set up a 100-kW SPS version around 2020.

It’s a very nice idea, and one that many of us have talked about (and written about) for years. Unfortunately, until they solve the problems of

  1. getting equipment and material from Earth’s surface to orbit quicker, cheaper, and more reliably;
  2. mining asteroids or the Moon for raw materials and processing them into the required end state; and
  3. building large structures in orbit

the idea of having a demonstration in just over 5 years — and a working model in 15! — seems extremely optimistic.

But, here’s hoping! It would be grand.

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Are We Missing the Point on Artificial Intelligence?

Read an interesting article yesterday about Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who takes issue with science fiction author Vernor Vinge and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s famous Singularity: that point at which computer intelligence emerges and outstrips human intelligence, which has been a staple of science fiction for years.

Robot
(“Robot,” by ewen and donabel, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

The viewpoint article, “The Brain is Not Computable”, introduces Nicolelis and his new book on the brain and human thought. As opposed to Kurzweil, et al, who foresee artificial intelligence being developed in the next few decades as computers grow ever more powerful, Nicolelis posits that the functions of the human brain — including random and unpredictable interactions among its myriad neurons — will not be replicated inside a machine.

That reminded me of a conversation I had during a panel discussion at a science fiction and fantasy convention many years ago,* in which I expressed my own doubts about artificial intelligence. I’m dubious of its appearance any time soon, not from the perspective of computer science but from that of Theory of Knowledge.

Specifically, the emergence of true AI would seem to require the computer (or network of computers) to transcend its own programming. We have seen tremendous performances by machines as repositories of quickly-accessible data — the “Watson” computer that competed so well at Jeopardy! was such a machine, capable of parsing the answer and finding the components of the most likely question. But as I understand it, Watson was still following instructions: still performing tasks it had been programmed to perform.

I contend that machines such as Watson are at the lowest end of what I think of as the chain of intelligence: Data are interpreted into Knowledge, and Knowledge is applied and refined into Wisdom.

A true AI — or, if you will, an intelligent artifice — will have to be much more than a sophisticated data-mining tool. For it to adhere to Theory of Knowledge, it will have to be able to form concepts based on the data presented to it; to convey knowledge those concepts will have to be predictive in nature, and the artifice will have to test those predictions against reality and, if needed, modify and continue to test them. Once it can rely on the accuracy of its predictions enough to carry out independent,** routine tasks without recourse to intervention by its programmers, we might consider it intelligent — but as its intelligence is tried in the fire of reality, will that artifice develop anything approaching wisdom?

Will such a device — artificial, independent, and intelligent — be developed in our lifetimes, and will it approach (let alone surpass) the functions of the human brain? I’m aware of the danger of saying anything will never happen, so I won’t say no … but I doubt it.

The cyberneticists are welcome to prove me wrong.

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*TriNoCon, perhaps? NASFiC? I don’t remember … and that bothers me.
**Which brings up another thorny issue with respect to any artifice: from whence shall it develop the will to act independently?

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Launch of a Satellite I Babysat for Over 8400 Miles

Ten years ago today — December 29, 2002 (GMT) — the Nimiq 2 communications satellite launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome atop a Proton rocket. Before that, though, it had to get there …


(Antonov AN-124 ‘Condor’ ready to on- or off-load cargo. Image by Mike Young, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Nimiq 2 was a Canadian satellite, built for Telesat by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin and launched by ILS — International Launch Services — on a Russian booster. I got involved in the program as a space technology security monitor, responsible for making sure no U.S. technology or satellite design methodology was transferred to the foreign companies.

As part of the monitoring effort, I had the task of escorting the satellite from the San Jose, California, factory to Baikonur. The spacecraft was loaded onto a Russian Antonov AN-124 cargo aircraft, and I rode with it for the entire trip — including eating Thanksgiving tuna-and-crackers en route.

Because the spacecraft and its support equipment made the aircraft so heavy, we could not fly directly to Baikonur. Instead, we made the trip in several hops, stopping for fuel each time:

  • San Jose to Winnipeg, Canada (1490.11 miles / 2398.1 km)
  • Winnipeg to Goose Bay, Canada (1605.93 miles / 2584.49 km)
  • Goose Bay to Shannon, Ireland (2118.3 miles / 3409.07 km)
  • Shannon to Ulyanovsk, Russia (2320.05 miles / 3733.76 km)
  • Ulyanovsk to Baikonur (909.67 miles / 1463.98 km)

Most of the stopovers were short, except for the stop in Shannon where the aircrew enjoyed the RON (rendezvous overnight) in a local hotel while I got to stay aboard the aircraft with the satellite. So much for my first trip to Ireland! I never strayed from the tarmac at the Shannon airport.

Once we arrived at Baikonur, I spent the early part of December 2002 observing the launch preparations, including mating the satellite to the Proton rocket and enclosing it in the payload fairing. Some of that experience went into my short story, “The Rocket Seamstress,” which was published in the literary magazine Zahir in 2007. (The story is now available on Anthology Builder.)

I did not stay at Baikonur long enough to see the Nimiq 2 launch, however. My boss flew in to take over monitoring the final prep and the launch itself, and I flew home (via Moscow and a couple other stops) in time for Christmas. But it was good to know that I had a part in the first commercial launch of a Proton with the Breeze-M upper stage.

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My Blog Goes Berserk

Craziness in the arcane intricacies of MySQL:

I wrote this morning’s entry and posted it, only to have the system notify me that of a database error. So, I tried again, and once more for good measure. After the third error message, I decided to pack it in and try again later … only to find that the system had indeed accepted each of those attempts.

And then what happened when I tried to delete two of the posts? Another database error notification.

I’m so confused. But even if I get an error message when I post this one, I’m only going to try it once.

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Reality Outpaces My Science Fiction

On the New Scientist site this morning, this headline: Hybrid cars give flywheels a spin.

A British company is testing flywheels as energy-storage units in hybrid cars, to replace much heavier batteries. Their first tests will be with airport buses, which seems like a good choice.

Read down to the end of the article, and you’ll see that several other companies are working on making this technology more effective and more affordable.

Here’s where the science fiction comes into play: In the first chapter of my (still unpublished, unfortunately) novel,* the main characters drive a turbine-and-flywheel automobile … and flywheel “batteries” (if you will) are the storage medium of choice for most of the vehicles that operate in and around the lunar colony.

So, reality is ahead of my SF. I never know whether to laugh or cry over things like this.

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* WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS is the story of lunar pioneers: two couples determined to survive and succeed as part of the first commercial lunar colony. In the end, one will decide to leave, one will decide to stay, one will put off deciding, and one will decide to die so another can live.

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Speaking of Chinese Space Ambitions…

Ten years ago today in space history — November 19, 1999 — the People’s Republic* of China launched an unmanned Shenzhou capsule on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiquan launch center.

The capsule was an enlarged version of the Russian Soyuz design, developed for a human space flight program originally known as “Project 921.” According to SPACEWARN Bulletin 553, the vehicle “carried a mannequin for test purposes” and “parachuted down in Inner Mongolia after orbiting for 21 hours.”

The renamed Shenzhou program would successfully place a Chinese astronaut (a “taikonaut”) in orbit not quite four years later, in October 2003.

I wonder how much the Chinese owe to Hughes and Loral for the success of this flight and the Shenzhou program. Did the Chinese engineers and technicians rework anything on this Long March rocket after the accident investigations into the Optus, Apstar, and Intelsat launch failures? (I refer readers to chapter five and chapter six of the Cox Commission Report for background.) We’ll never know. They would have gotten to this point eventually, no doubt.

Flash forward** to yesterday in space history: NASA announced that they intend to explore cooperative space ventures with the Chinese (not quite a year after the last Administration turned the idea down). The message now? Steal our technical know-how, and continue to violate your own people’s human rights, but we’ll still cooperate with you in the greatest adventure of Mankind.

For more on Chinese space ambitions, see this thread in the Space Warfare Forum.

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*Young people, or people who don’t understand what the fuss is all about, may not recognize the irony of a Communist country calling itself a “republic,” and especially a “people’s republic.” See “doublespeak,” as in “Orwellian.”

**Not to be confused with Robert J. Sawyer’s excellent novel, Flash Forward, which I understand is also a pretty good television show.

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Once again, I am a Relic

A few years ago, when they shut down the 55th Mobile Command & Control Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, I became a relic of the Cold War. Later, when the last Titan rocket launched, I became a relic of the space program.

Now, again, it seems I am a relic: this time of the attempt to keep militarily critical U.S. technology in U.S. hands.

At the Defense Technology Security Administration from 2001-04, I recommended provisos for hundreds of State Department export licenses and agreements, to ensure U.S. companies didn’t reveal design methodologies or other insights into U.S. capabilities. I reviewed reams of technical data to ensure the companies didn’t go beyond the restrictions in their licenses. And I monitored dozens of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and foreign companies to ensure all parties stayed in bounds. It was often fascinating, sometimes frustrating work that was born out of the Cox Commission and the defense authorization that, among other things, had moved export authority for communications satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department (see below).

Now we find out that, by executive fiat, our President delegated his responsibility for certifying critical space exports to the Commerce Department. It was actually done back on September 29th, via this Presidential Determination.

The responsibility is found in Section 1512 of the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act:

The President shall certify to the Congress at least 15 days in advance of any export to the People’s Republic of China of missile equipment or technology (as defined in section 74 of the
Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2797c)) that —
(1) such export is not detrimental to the United States space launch industry; and
(2) the missile equipment or technology, including any indirect technical benefit that could be derived from such export, will not measurably improve the missile or space launch capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.

So now, rather than the President making such certifications to Congress, the Commerce Department will do so. If I recall, people complained because George W. Bush seemed to delegate things instead of tending to them himself; but according to this Washington Times article, neither he nor Bill Clinton ever delegated this particular responsibility.

Thankfully, the determination did not seem to immediately get around Section 1513 of the 1999 NDAA, which states,

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, all satellites and related items that are on the Commerce Control List of dual use items in the Export Administration Regulations (15 CFR part 730 et seq.) on the date of the enactment of this Act shall be transferred to the United States Munitions List and controlled under section 38 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2778).

But how long until that gets changed? There are a lot of rumblings in the aerospace industry about rescinding some of the current export controls, as if the reason U.S. companies have lost market share to foreign satellite makers is that they can’t tell foreign customers why U.S. satellites work so well. It’s not price, it’s not that foreign manufacturers build fine spacecraft, it’s lack of technology transfer? The notion is ridiculous, but the impulse to blame our lack of competitiveness on anything other than internal business practices runs very deep in this country — witness the U.S. auto industry. Disturbingly, this “determination” seems to indicate that the Administration is willing to entertain the idea of sacrificing national security in order to make a quick buck.

I found that attitude among representatives of some of the companies I monitored: the short-sighted notion that it didn’t matter if they transferred technology to another country, as long as the other country paid well. The possibility that a foreign company might end up as their competitor in the future, and take away their customers using adapted U.S. technology, never seemed to occur to them.

Eight months before President Obama was elected, I expressed concerns about his national (in)security rhetoric. I didn’t foresee this potential relaxation of export controls, but I can’t say I’m very surprised.

And I’m still concerned. But I would be: after all, I’m a relic.

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Dual-Use Space Technology in Space History

Forty-five years ago today — August 19, 1964 — a Thor Delta rocket launched the Syncom-3 satellite out of Cape Canaveral.


(Syncom-3 satellite. Image from NASA’s Space Science Data Center.)

The rocket was the first Delta to use strap-on solid rocket motors, and the spacecraft was the first geostationary satellite. Its predecessor, Syncom-2, had been the first geosynchronous satellite, the difference being that Syncom-2’s orbit was inclined slightly with respect to the equator while Syncom-3’s orbit was more precisely equatorial. The satellite, orbiting over the Pacific, relayed live television coverage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Space Science Data Center also notes that

Operations were turned over to the Department of Defense on 1 January 1965, [sic] Syncom 3 was to prove useful in the DoD’s Vietnam communications.

I find this immensely interesting, since from 2001-04 I worked in the Defense Technology Security Administration and enforced restrictions on the export of satellite and launch vehicle technology. Even back in 1964, when I was a “wee bairn,” it was clear that space technology could be dual-use: useful, that is, for civil and military purposes.

Our government seemed to forget that simple fact during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and allowed companies to export space technology a bit more freely; during that time, a few U.S. companies managed to help other countries solve technical problems that enabled them to improve their space technologies. My job at DTSA was to protect those technologies, which not only protected our military advantage but also — though the companies were loathe to admit it — protected the technological edge our U.S. corporations had built up over the years.

Now we seem to be in danger of turning the calendar back and allowing companies to be more laissez faire in exporting militarily critical technologies. The current Administration, under pressure from industry groups that would rather sell technology today even if it means giving up their technological advantage tomorrow, is considering taking satellites off of the U.S. Munitions List. (See this article from July, and this article from last Friday.)

Let me go on record as saying I think this is a bad idea. One, because we don’t need to be giving potential adversaries — or even friendly competitors — the same tools on which we may rely in a conflict. Two, because we don’t need to spare them the years of research and development it will take to catch up — which cost us billions of dollars and included many failures from which we learned valuable lessons — and thereby put them in better positions to compete with us in the future.

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