[Edu-sig] As We May Think: What will we automate?

Edward Cherlin echerlin at gmail.com
Mon Mar 23 04:03:30 CET 2009

On Sat, Mar 21, 2009 at 2:14 PM, kirby urner <kirby.urner at gmail.com> wrote:
> One of our Wanderers (think tank in Portland) wrote:
> """
> I expect that teaching Python/Perl/Ruby/Java in the 2000s will be
> viewed with the same scorn in the 2030's. The problem with "flavor
> of the month" languages is that they are passe a month later, as
> better abstractions appear. Such evanescent ways of doing things
> are probably not the basis for life-long learning.

We need a language-independent way of teaching programming concepts. I
have an idea for one based on Turtle Art, which represents programs as
trees, not texts. Most programming languages have to transform texts
to trees before executing or compiling them. Trees are far more
fundamental than texts. Everybody in the LISP world knows that syntax
is just sugar on the top of a language.

I hope to see other language-independent models.

> << SNIP >>
> In the Wonderful World of the Future, most people will be actively
> creating active digital content with state and flow control, object
> abstraction, "programming" in the sense of producing automated
> stuff that accomplishes tasks.

There are several programming languages popular among non-professional
programmers. These languages get no respect in the professional
community, and neither do their users. But think what a
non-professional programmer is. He or she is typically a specialist in
some other domain who needs custom programming. A statistician, a
scientist, an engineer, a computer musician...I know people in each of
those fields, and others, creating their own software to do their

A language for professional programmers can be quite elaborate,
requiring considerable effort to learn and constant use to maintain. A
language for non-professionals must be simple in structure, with
minimal syntax and minimal

> But it won't be text based. There
> may be a few Morlocks laboring down amongst the lines of code like
> you and I do.

Mitch Bradley, the author of Open Firmware, programs to bare metal so
that the rest of us don't have to. He is hardly a Morlock.

> Working with "text code" will probably be considered
> "fundamental" and "connected with our roots", like animal-powered
> agriculture is now....

Code will not go away. But as in the AI community long ago, we will
think of programs to write programs to write programs.

> So take a look at "programming in schools" from the viewpoint of
> an adult in 2030, not a 2009 viewpoint, and heaven forbid from the
> viewpoint of the ancient times when you and I were trained. What
> do you wish you had been taught 40 years ago?

Not BASIC, not Pascal, not even Python. In my case, Smalltalk,
LISP/SCHEME, FORTH, and APL/J, each of which presents a different
model for thinking about how computers work and about how to represent
knowledge and skill. Each also has a radically simple syntax and a
universal concept of data structures. In Smalltalk, everything is an
object. LISP represents everything in trees. APL in forests. FORTH in
memory layout. LISP, FORTH, and APL each has a different way to model
object-oriented programming.

"I invented Object-Oriented Programming, and C++ is not what I had in
mind."--Alan Kay

> What was fashionable but dated?

Computer literacy is the worst. Just as though we had a room where all
of the pencils and paper and books were kept, where you could fool
around for an hour or two a week, but you had no books in your
courses, and you could not do written homework. Earth Treasury is
working on Digital Textbooks, now that we can give children the use of
computers 24/7.

> Extrapolate that forwards, and try to guess what they
> will want, not what you and I consider important /now/. For extra
> points, try to guess what they should be teaching *their* kids,
> for use in the year 2060, and get started on the theoretical
> underpinnings of *that*.

In 2060 there will be new physics and math that we have no idea of.
There will be new media, and new art forms. We will not think about
economics and politics as we do now. We can expect that everybody on
Earth who wants to be on the Internet will be. Dire poverty should
have ended. We cannot specify content in advance. What I want is for
children to be taught collaborative discovery in the realm of powerful

o What is this? Is it real? How do I know? (In a $2 word, ontology)

o What does this mean? Is it true? Why should you believe me? (epistemology)

o Is this important? Should I do something about it, even if I don't
want to? (ethics)

> I'm wondering what people on this list think about this remark.
> I responded rather sharply at the time, as I think it's a common
> dodge, to avoid adding grist to the mill today, because of some
> hypothetical future wherein said "grist" will be obsolete.

I do not argue against grist. I argue that our children should be able
to adapt the mill when necessary.

> In the meantime, we continue teaching technical subjects as if the
> FOSS revolution never happened, I think imperiling its gains (sliding
> back into a pit of "deep silos" proprietary ignorance -- could
> happen).

Some of us are working on integrating FOSS into the heart of the
curriculum. In order to penetrate into the other world you speak of,
we have to get past the current bureaucratic textbook acquisition
process. We can do that because our books will have no cost. We have
to integrate software into textbooks, and into the curriculum, as we
can with one-to-one computing. We know of social and political forces
preventing school reform. FOSS allows us to go around these obstacles.
We must prepare to meet others that will arise.

> I've further registered my disagreement with the above model in my
> journal posting of this afternoon, but I'm guessing a wider variety of
> perspectives might be useful at this juncture.
> http://mybizmo.blogspot.com/2009/03/noodling-and-doodling.html
> Kirby
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Silent Thunder (默雷/धर्ममेघशब्दगर्ज/دھرممیگھشبدگر ج) is my name
And Children are my nation.
The Cosmos is my dwelling place, The Truth my destination.
http://earthtreasury.net/ (Edward Mokurai Cherlin)

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