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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Education Platform I wrote for Mr. Trump

Corey Lewandowski who was, at the time, Trump's Campaign Manager asked me to write an education platform for Mr. Trump. Cory was fired soon after this request, so I am sure Mr. Trump never saw it. Today, I noticed that after the absurd choice of Ben Carson, Mr Trump is now thinking about appointing to secretary of education the head of Success Academy. That is a school that makes sure that all its kids do well on tests. Since testing is the problem in our schools, I find this rather odd, but maybe it is just the usual newspaper rumors. 
 In any case I have decided to share my platform. Here it is:
Platform for Education Policy (proposed by Roger Schank)
some basic assumptions 
1.      Common Core is a bad idea. It reinforces the 19th century curriculum and over emphasizes testing. It needs to be eliminated.
2.      One size fits all curricula are a bad idea. Students have different interests and should be allowed to pursue what interest them (after the 3Rs are learned.)
3.      We have the technological capability to build 100’s of new curricula that would be delivered online with mentoring, to help kids get excited about going to school to learn skills they really want to learn.
4.      Federal control over education policy is a bad idea. Each state is different in many ways. Kids might want to study Oceanography in Florida, or Casino Management in New Mexico, or Aerospace Engineering in Kansas. The role of the federal government should be to fund the creation of such curricula and help find people who can build them after being requested to do so by a State.
5.      High schools have failed. They are all about college prep but they shouldn’t be. It is not the role of the high school system to make admissions decisions easier for colleges. Now, colleges dictate the high school curriculum by “suggesting” that students take certain subjects before they apply. The colleges need to be encouraged to ask for examples of thinking ability, communication ability, and being able to get along with others. Then, the colleges themselves can teach whatever they think their new admits need to know. The system has been built by the elite colleges to make the admissions process easier for themselves. Yale had 29,000 applications for entry into the call of 2017. We must encourage the extended Ivies to not make high school and the SAT all about their needs and start thinking about the needs of the average person. These are more likely to be job skills and life skills than algebra and chemistry skills. The Ivies need to stop telling high school students what to study. No one needs algebra except to meet these requirements.
The very idea of academic subjects in high school needs to be replaced. Most high school students do not go on to become academics. Students need to be helped to learn to think and should learn skills by actually doing them. The skills they learn should relate to actual things adults need to do. For example, why are there no child raising courses, or courses on how to speak well, or courses on how to get a job, or courses on how to deal with personal finance? Everyday skills matter.
I would like Mr Trump to shut down the DOE as he promised and to replace it with Education DARPA. This would be a fund of money offered to people who want to create innovative curricula in any area at all, allowing people everywhere to learn what it interests them to learn. You want to be a doctor? Try it out in an online learn by doing simulation in high school. You want to design aircraft? Do it in high school. Open a restaurant. Do it in simulation first. We can build thousands of them, offer them online with teachers who are available to help no matter where you are.
Please Mr. Trump. You are right about returning control of education to the states. This means fighting big corporate interests who want to sell more tests. We don't need kids who test well, we need kids who are excited to learn because they are following their own interests and can what they have accomplished.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Learning about AI by watching Family Feud

Last week I was in Bogota, Colombia, interviewing experts in the food industry in order to gather video stories for use in a program to be used by that industry. At least 2 of the interviewees mentioned that they were using AI. They didn’t know anything about me so they didn’t mention AI for that reason. They just were saying that they were using AI in their food companies. This is so weird I had no idea what it could mean. What could they know about AI? AI has become the kind of thing that people (and especially the media) mention at the drop of a hat these days. But, they deeply fail to know what AI really is or at least should be.

Also last week, Stephen Hawking yet again made a pronouncement about AI, making clear he has no idea what AI is either.

So, I have come to the conclusion that AI  is a word that many people and businesses say a lot while very few people who say it have a clue as to what it means. 

With that thought on my mind, and being someone who has thought about AI, and human intelligence, for about 50 years, I want to make some remarks here about human intelligence based on some rather mundane observations.

I happened to be watching a silly U.S. TV show, Family Feud, that my wife likes. She likes it because the contestants are often quite stupid and she likes to make fun of them. The show pits two families against each other to see who can best guess answers from a survey of 100 people.

On one particular show we were watching the following question was asked: 

Name something someone might hide in their freezer. 

The first contestant’s answer was:

a dead body

That response matched an answer that 5% of the people had given who had answered the survey. The response was written on the game board  as: body/lover’s head.

So, I started to think about AI. “Why?” you might ask. Because my approach to AI has always been to observe humans and see what they do and wonder how we could get a computer to do that. Based on such observations, my team and I would try to build programs to capture people’s intelligence by mimicking the cognitive processes that we recognized must be occurring.

So, the AI question here is: how does “lover’s head” or “dead body” come to mind when asked this question? You can be sure it doesn’t come to Google’s “mind” nor to Alexa’s “mind” nor to Watson’s “mind” because it is not a matter of text-based search nor statistical calculation.

In order for that answer to come to mind one has to ask oneself about weird things one may have seen in a freezer. Human search of human memory depends on many things none of which are text. What probably happened here, is what often happens; one tries to form an image in one’s mind based upon prior images one has seen. Now I have never seen a human body in a freezer. No wait. Of course I have. I have seen it in the movies. I can see that image now as I write this. I don’t recall the name of the movie, but I can visualize a large freezer in a garage someplace.

So, here we have one principle of human search of human minds:

People have the ability to recall images by trying to imagine something and then connecting what they are imagining to something they have actually seen.

Other answers on this show to this question included these:

2nd answer : jewelry (this matched an answer that 4% of the surveyed had given)

3rd answer: moolah, money (this matched the answer money)

The next three probably were again done by imaging. But they might been done by contestants asking themselves the question: what would I want to hide from someone:

Ice cream

I am not sure why one would like to hide ice cream, but the others seem normal enough. People hide valuables. If you Google this answer you will find that there are texts that say that and therefore Google could come up with jewelry.

You can view this episode of Family Feud here starting at the next answer:

The first contestant in the video (which starts in the middle of this question) said:

I am gonna go with a little bit of that ganja weed.

This matched drugs/fat blunt which was an answer given by 8% of those surveyed. Someone who smokes marijuana would have to regularly hide it, but the human search mechanism here is a little different than what we have seen so far.

To answer this, a person would have to ask themselves a question like: “what am I afraid that someone might see in my home?”  (where someone might mean the police or one’s parents typically).

Now, this is a question about one’s personal experience. The person who answered it had to have transformed the initial question into: what do I have that I often hide?

The AI issue here is what we might call question transformation. We hear questions, and in order to answer them we ask ourselves about our own personal experiences or fears or desires.

People typically transform general questions into personal questions in order to answer them.
Would “an AI” have to do that? It would indeed. People try to find memories by asking themselves things and then coming up with new thoughts and old memories. They don’t search texts since they don’t have texts in their minds. But, no one in AI is thinking about that sort of thing anymore. They are too busy with search and machine learning based on tangible data.

The next answer (which is also on the video) was this:

well if you’ve got drugs and you've got booze you got to have something to protect yourself so I am gonna say a weapon  

This did not match any of the answers from the survey, but it caused the host of the show (Steve Harvey) to make the following comment:

“see, the thought process, the beauty of this family, is being how they arrive at the answer”

Oddly enough, Steve Harvey is making an AI observation here. He is noting that in order to arrive at an answer, the contestant had to actually think. Further the contestant was thinking about the answers that had already been given and was picturing a scene where the thing that had been mentioned had actually happened.

Thinking involves imagining events that one may have never witnessed in any way. It involves drawing conclusions from the events that one has imagined. 

People can imagine events and draw conclusions about what would happen next in the imagined circumstance.

Funny how no one is working on that in AI. It is hard to imagine, Mr. Hawking, that a machine that could not do that would be very smart, much less be something to be frightened of.

Now I would like to examine another question from a different episode of Family Feud. This one is a little off color which is not uncommon for this show. I am sorry about that, but the example gives us more food for thought about AI. The question to the families was:

Name something done to nuts that Mr. Peanut’s wife would likely do to him for cheating on him.

1st answer: crack him (this was correct and the top answer from the survey)

The fact that this was the top answer is very interesting because coming up with it is very difficult. It involves recognizing that a word that has two very different meanings can be used as an answer. One has to ask oneself what kinds of things one does with peanuts and then imagine how the answer you came up with might be similar to a different meaning of the word.

What can I do with peanuts? is a question that again requires one to imagine a circumstance. Then, one has to take the word that might be used to describe the action and see if that word can be applied to expressing anger in some way. To do that, one has to infer that the wife is angry and that she might want to retaliate in some way. Then after finding the word “crack” one has to recognize that “crack someone over the head” is an expression that exists in English and is a way of expressing anger. No computer today can do this. People do it easily.

Here are more answers that rely on similar processes:

2nd answer: hide them (not on survey)

3rd answer: throw them out (not on survey)

4th answer: eat them (6th answer on survey)

5th answer: switch foods (not on survey)

6th answer: roast them (#2 answer on survey)

7th answer: chop him to bits

8th answer: make peanut butter

9th answer: boil him

In order to answer questions we must frequently imagine circumstances, draw inferences about the feelings and actions of the participants in those circumstances and then think about words that can be used to describe those feelings and actions.

I will look at one more question from that same show:

Name something the ladies might do if a male stripper preforms at the nursing home

1st answer: faint (this was #7 on survey)

2nd answer: scream (this was considered to have matched the #1 answer which was laugh/cheer)

3rd answer: dance (this matched the #6 answer)

4th answer: get a lap dance (This was deemed to have matched handle goods/spank.)

5th answer: pull out the cell phone and take pictures (This was not on the survey.)

These answers involve putting oneself in someone else’s situation. One has to imagine oneself as an old lady in a nursing home. Since these are not old people on this show and since half of them are men this requires a great deal of imagination. You must ask yourself how someone feels when you may have only minimal knowledge of what that kind of person might feel.

What does a sick old woman feel when faced with male sexuality? is a complex question. How do you think Watson would do with it? My point is that human intelligence is complex indeed and no computer can do very much of it. 

I included this question because of the next answer. I had no idea whatsoever what the answer meant:

6th answer: make it rain (this matched $$$/make it rain which was the #2 answer)

So, not only couldn’t a computer come up with this, but neither could I. And, I could not comprehend the answer. But the audience did. (My wife explained it to me.)

This leads me to my key point. Why did the audience (and my wife) know what this meant? Probably the simple answer is that this is a new expression and I don’t pay that much attention to pop culture. But, and this is the issue, intelligent entities are constantly changing and growing. They learn new things constantly by listening to people, watching movies, and television, texting on the phone, and maybe even by reading. (I am not sure where exactly one might read this expression.)

Intelligence involves the ability to constantly change oneself by updating one’s world view according to new inputs.

I learned this lesson when I was running my AI lab at Yale many years ago in the following way. DARPA (our sponsor) was coming to see what we had done. We had built a program that used the UPI wire as input and read stories, summarized them, and answered questions about them. To prepare for this demo, we knew of many stories that our program had read successfully and so we showed them being read by our program to the visitors from DARPA.

The program did well and our visitors were impressed. But suddenly I found myself getting upset.  One of the stories was about an earthquake in Iran. I knew that our program has read that story many times. I realized that it should have responded:  Enough with the earthquake in Iran story. Or is this a new one? There sure have been a lot of earthquakes in Iran lately. 

Of course, it hadn’t done that because it hadn’t learned anything from that story.

People learn from every experience they have. An AI program would have to change after every experience as well, in order to be considered intelligent.

It was at that point in my career that I switched my interests to learning. I got interested in how to get computers to learn and I also became interested with every discovery about how what I was learning about learning bore very little relation to how learning was taking place in the schools.

So, Mr Hawking, and Food Industry people from Bogota, and Watson, listen up: if your “AI” isn’t changing as a result of every interaction it has it isn’t “an AI” at all. People, even not very bright ones, learn something new from every experience.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Our kids are being badly treated by school and newspapers act like nothing terrible is happening

Must we continue to make kids miserable in school? It seems every day we find new ways to accomplish this. The New York Post (a paper I read because they cover the sports teams that I follow) had this to say yesterday:

Good news: The State Education Department is doing the right thing, recommending only innocuous changes to the math and English standards in the controversial Common Core curriculum. 

How this is good news I don’t know since Common Core means that every kid must learn the same things so that kid’s can become the same, just like “compatible electrical sockets” (Those are Bill Gates’ words, not mine.) I suppose we would all die if one kid decided to follow his or her own interests and those interests were different than the kid next to them. Oh My God! A kid might not know the Quadratic Formula! (Hardly any adults know it or use it… but who cares?)

Back to the NY Post

The Common Core national academic standards outline the knowledge and skills that every student should have in math and English at the end of each grade.  Clear, universal standards make it easier to see which kids — and which schools and school systems — are falling behind. And that’s a threat to certain special interests — above all, teachers unions and their allies, who’ve done their best to feed hysteria over Common Core.

No, NY Post. There is nothing that every kid must know. Teachers unions and anyone with half a brain, except, of course, the politicians and special testing interests who passed this nonsense know this.

The goal of school ought not be to make it easier to see which schools and school systems are falling behind. We are not in a World Cup competition in education. The competition that we have put people in, unfortunately, is to get their kids into a “good college,” and parents trip over one another making sure their kid is “doing well.” 

We might measure how well they are doing by how happy they are, by how much they can’t wait to get to school that day, by how much a school lets a kid set his or her own goals and then helps them achieve them. No. That would be too rational. School is a triathlon isn’t it? We want winners and losers. 

I was one of the those winners. I went to a special smart kids high school in New York and I got into a “good college.” I did it by blowing school off and letting the chips fall where they might. Today, I doubt I could get away with that. Instead of playing baseball and football which is what I did as soon as I got home from school each day, today I would have to study to cram facts into my head that I would never need to know ever again. I would never have been able to satisfy Bill Gates, the Common Core Standards, nor the New York Post. (Oddly, The New York Times and the New York Post agree about Common Core which makes one wonder just how much money is out there pushing all this.)

To see the rest of this article go to this link:

I was nauseous enough from seeing the NY Post article but then I saw this:

The following appeared in the Washington Post yesterday:

As kindergarten ratchets up academics, parents feel the stress

Jo Ann Bjornson spent her early childhood in the care of babysitters until it came time for her to board the bus to school for half-day classes, an event that came with little fanfare. For her daughter Isabella, the days before kindergarten started this month included structured preschool, a bevy of summer camps and months of agonizing over whether the smart, sensitive 5-year-old was academically and socially ready to start school.

Kindergarten, where children were once encouraged to play and adjust to the rhythms of the school day, has long been evolving. But many parents new to modern-day elementary schooling say they have been shocked to find their children in a pressure cooker of rigorous academics, standardized tests, homework and what seem like outrageous expectations.

Huh?  Kids are getting anxious about kindergarten? Why is that a good thing?

The nation’s earliest grade — if you don’t count pre-K — now comes with packed orientation nights, school tours, Twitter chats, warnings to make sure children brush up on their skills and “dress rehearsals.” Some parents have come to view the first year of school not as a transition but as a make-or-break gauntlet that will shape their child’s academic career.

What are parents nervous about exactly? The competition. They are afraid their kids will lose — whatever that means — and they will be doomed forever. Has no one ever heard of kids who did poorly in school and then did well in life or vice versa? When did school become so important? When did grades and tests became so important? Why are we allowing this?

I should point out that societies have been allowing this for some time. 

This is from the Satyricon written by Petronius in the First Century:

This is the reason, in my opinion, why young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life.  

We have been teaching nonsense in schools forever. Why?

Because we allow academics to dictate what kids must know. You must take algebra, geometry, and calculus, in order to get into Harvard. Why? Because the professors at Harvard don’t care about that stuff and they hope someone else will teach it to you so they don't have to. Then, they hope you want to study theoretical mathematics or physics because that is the stuff they know. Parents who push children to get into college never think about what is really taught there. As far as I can see, going to Harvard allows you to say that you went to Harvard, which impresses many people. But people rarely mention what they learned there.

The other day my 8 year old grandson announced he was going to go to Brown. I asked him: “Why?” “What do they teach there that you want to learn?” Of course he didn’t know. What he did know was that his mother went there. So, I asked his mother what she had learned at Brown that she uses in her daily life. She said “nothing" and then went on to say why it was a wonderful experience. I am sure it was. 

College is fun after all. And you can get to learn some interesting things if what they teach there happens to be of interest to you. Is this a reason that we have to make everyone hysterical about kindergarten?

Something is really wrong here.

We need to find a new approach to education.

We might start with asking newspapers to stop promoting all the nonsense that is there now. The we could ask them to press politicians, who did all this, to start talking about. Neither of the candidates ever seems to say anything about education. IT is time to start asking hard questions of politicians about why school can’t be fun and less stressful.

School shouldn’t be a competition. It should allow true exploration and let kids find their way with help from teachers, teachers who are not grading them, but mentoring them. Is that too much to ask?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Is "learning to code" the new way to promote factory job-based education?

Recently, I happened to spend some time with the back office software development groups of two major financial institutions.This would have been unremarkable except that the same week, Tim Cook, of Apple, was busy announcing that schools would be improved by Apple’s  “everyone can learn to code” program. Now, at first I found Apple’s intention to teach every kid to code unremarkable. Apple can say it is doing something for education when it is really making sure it will be able to sell more MacBooks to all these coders. Nothing new here.

I was amused when President Obama said that everyone should learn to code, since while I am guessing that Cook can code, I am pretty sure Obama cannot, so why does he care? And, what does he actually know about coding?

Now, I confess to thinking 30 or 40 years ago, that learning to code helped one learn to think. The students in my AI classes who couldn’t code typically just didn’t get what we were talking about — kind of like the writers who write about AI today.  

I used to say that thinking algorithmically was pretty important for thinking in general. In my undergraduate classes I often had a graduate student play “robot” and told the students in class to give the robot orders. What happened was always pretty funny because the students (who could not code) never really understood that the “robot” couldn’t interpret what they meant. They would tell him or her what to do and they were orders that couldn't be executed because the “robot” took everything quite literally and would just “get stuck” with orders that were imprecise. What anyone who programs learns is that you can’t just say something nonspecific and then hope that a miracle will occur. You have to spell out every step and you have to think about the best way to say those steps. So, coding just enables clear thinking and precise communication.

Having said that however I am usually cynical about “everyone should learn to do this" statements and have been getting more and more cynical about this.

Then, last week, I got it.

In my most recent column I quoted this:

Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900):

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

So, the quote was on my mind when I was visiting the software development groups of these companies. “Everyone should learn to code” is the new way of saying we need to create compliant factory workers and that the real purpose of school is to make sure that we are training people for the “factory jobs” of the future. 

While this is not a terrible idea, one has to see what the programmers at these institutions are actually doing. They are monitoring, responding to bug reports, and trying to update legacy code that supports the internal workings of their institutions. In other words, it is rather dull work. 

Now dull work is better than no work, but we have glamorized coding so that we imagine everyone who learns to code will be building the next great app. And some, no doubt, some will. I am sure that some of the people we trained to be factory workers actually learned to run the factory and some people invented new methods and tools and new factories as well.

My immigrant grandmother worked in a sweat shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I assure you this wasn’t the best time of her life. She was very bright, but as an immigrant a sweat shop seamstress was her only option. Eventually she opened and ran her own hotel, and as she used to say, it was all so that I could become a Professor. 

Many of the people programming in these institutions are from other counties where a job in the US programming seems pretty glamorous.

But, I just think it needs to be pointed out that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is still the plan of CEOs and politicians to make sure that people will be able to do dull jobs. Maybe they aren’t wrong about that. Every job can’t be interesting, and every economy needs to be able to provide jobs for its people. 

But I am tired of this kind of stuff being promoted as a sign of how wonderful the people who are helping change education are. Tim Cook and President Obama are no different than Edward Cubberly. They are all trying to ensure that  “it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

And school will continue to be an awful experience designed by people who really do not care if children are miserable and poorly served. Not everyone will become a programmer after all.

Monday, September 5, 2016

"Save Me": a 15 year old girl writes to me about the misery of school

I received this by e-mail today from a 15 year old girl in Central America:

                                 Today my school had a meeting for all tenth graders in which they attempted to terrify us  (and succeeded) by telling us that this year was the most important of our lives and that if we didn't know what we wanted to be we were in for a life of starvation and eternal damnation, but chill, "we can still turn the situation around". Afterwards when I got home my dad had to listen to the complaints and frustrations of my fifteen year old self, but this time instead of trying to advise me he passed me his computer in which he had open an interview in El Pais. An interview with Roger Schank, where he said (in fancy words) that the education system was bullshit (pardon the foul languaqe, you see as a teenager I feel the need to fill everyones expectations and cliches about me). 
     The thing is, I completely agreed. Not in the way of an angry adolescent girl who hates homework, but as a concerned citizen of a country who constantly reinforces the idea that their education is shit by having kids in 8th grade who don't know how to read, or college students in their second year who have already switched majors twice. It makes me angry, in all honesty. The way we teach in our schools isn't the way I think you create successful (and happy) adults, it's the way you create the society we've had until now. 
    When I was five someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my first answer was princess (obviously) but my second one was doctor-soldier-veterinarian-actress-singer-teacher. I later found out that not only was that not a real profession, but that I had to pick one of those. And it seemed so hard, there were so many problems I wanted to fix in the world and I couldn't comprehend how it was that I had to choose at best two. So I made a decision: if I can't solve everything in the world, I can at least educate the people who can. Being a teacher was my main choice, but then I thought that I would have to be a teacher of a system I didn't believe in and didn't trust. So I decided recently that I want to change that system.
     I dream big and naively, I know. But how else do people get things done? So when I read your article, my hopes went up: there was someone out there with my same ideas! Someone who I hadn't talked to but that somehow shared my beliefs. So I got excited.
     The truth is, I started thinking about this because a teacher scared me half to death, but it feels bigger now, more important. And I want to act on it, I don't want to grow up and 30 years later find out that I'm an office worker unhappy in life and that hasn't done anything to improve this world. Because that's my main goal now: leave a positive mark here. So I should be wrapping up by now, so I will; I wrote this email to ask you one question (with possibly many follow-ups): How do I become you? What do I study to get into that life of education?
     I realize now that you probably won't read this, or even if you do you have absolutely no obligation to answer the silly email of a 15 year old girl in Central America. But I had to give it a shot. As long as it might be.
Thank you for sticking to what you believe in and for giving me at least a glimmer of hope towards a potential future.

I find this letter unbelievably sad. And the solution is so simple. We can build a virtual world academy that allows students to learn experientially with a human mentor (who might be anywhere, always available, that relies on team projects so kids are not working alone.) Want to try being a doctor? Be one in a virtual world until you are tired of it, and now want to run a zoo, or build a business, or learn to program. Let kids learn what they want to learn in curricula design by professionals. How hard is it to do this? It requires work and maybe a couple of hundred million dollars. Mark Zuckerberg could fund it in a minute. The US congress could fund it in a minute. (I once asked a US senator about this and he said: “well we could just build one less missile.”)

But we never do it. We just let kids be miserable, or, we use school for it’s true intention: indoctrination. The Washington Post reported today on the countries in Europe that are teaching that their students need to make more babies, by which they mean they don’t want to be overrun by foreigners. The true purpose of the school has always been making kids behave according to the current party line.

To quote Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900):

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

We can, and must, address the needs of girls like this and kids everywhere.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Chicken AI

My wife has acquired a flock of 8 chickens. As a city boy, I find this weird, but she is a farm girl and she loves chickens. I don’t mind the fresh eggs anyhow.

So, I found myself wondering about chicken intelligence. As I look at the chickens, I find myself curious about building a chicken AI. There has been so much over hype about the imminent AI taking over the world, so I thought about what we might have to do that to build a chicken AI, that is, a computer that was as smart as a chicken.

There are 8 chickens on our land. One avoids all the others. Let’s call it the autistic chicken. My wife informs me that there is a dominant chicken. One of the perks of being the dominant chicken is getting to sleep on the highest rung of the coop. (I don’t know why this matters to the chicken — this never came up in Brooklyn when I was growing up.) The chickens like to hang out together  (except for the autistic one). Why I come by they all try to be close to me., I don’t know why. I am not feeding them  so it has nothing to do with food. I do make chicken noises at them, and they make them back until I go away.

So, what would be going on in the mind of a chicken? 

From Modern Farmer: 

Purpose of the Pecking Order

Pecking order rank determines the order in which chickens are allowed to access food, water, and dust-bathing areas. It determines who gets the most comfortable nesting boxes and the best spots on the roosting bar. The good news is that, at least among a flock of chickens born and raised together, the pecking order is established early on and the birds live in relative harmony, with only minor skirmishes now and then to reinforce who is in charge.

The chicken at the top of pecking order has a special role to play in the flock. Because they are so strong and healthy, it’s their responsibility to keep constant watch for predators and usher the others to safety when a circling hawk appears or a strange rustling is heard in the bushes nearby. The top chicken is also expected to be an expert at sniffing out food sources, such as a nest of tasty grubs under a fallen log, or a bunch of kitchen scraps that the farmer dropped on their way to the compost pile. Even though the top chicken has the right to eat first, he or she usually lets the others feed, while keeping a vigilant watch for predators, and dines only after everyone else has had their fill.

Certainly a chicken has clear needs and it tries to figure out a way to get what it wants. This is a simple idea but one that is way beyond any AI program that is out there today. No one told the chicken which needs to have. It just has them. It wasn’t programmed by a human to have those needs. And, no one told the chicken how to get its needs fulfilled. And, no one told the autistic chicken to avoid all other chickens most of the time. So while you can get a computer to do these things, what we cannot do, at least not yet, is to get computers to generate their own needs and to figure out ways to fulfill them. The reason for that is that thinking requires observation, copying, the weighing of the pros and cons of various behaviors, and learning from the results.  And you also have to figure out when the pecking order has been established and it is time to give up trying to better your position. 

Chickens clearly have a rich sensory system, so much of what they “figure out” would come from what they see and feel. When ELIZA responds to someone saying they are feeling sad with “why are you feeling sad?” it is not relying on much cognitive power. A person who know who he or she was talking with, would sense the sadness and possibly be able to know where it was coming from, so it might respond “ you have simply got to get over her.”

The lesson here for AI is simple enough. The chickens are reasoning from data but probably not using statistics to do it. The chickens can copy behaviour and they can try things out to see if they work and then know what has and has not worked and get smarter from experience. Awareness of the world around you and sensing who might do what, matters a great deal.

Will AI be able to do this someday? I assume so. We are not there yet however.

The chickens come to visit my foot: 

The autistic chicken: