Man as Machine

March 30, 2006

A recent issue of Time magazine analyzed the multi-tasking behavior of modern children. The upshot of the cover story was that our interpretation of multi-tasking was flawed for the simple reason that children do not explicitly do more than one thing at the same time, as they would were they simultaneously walking and talking. Instead, they concurrently engage in many things, like talking on the phone, typing instant messages, doing their email, watching TV, and working on homework. Such behavior is clearly distinct from true multi-tasking; it is more the continuous cycling between tasks. Taken purely as a matter of logic, it should make no difference were the child to take up one task, finish it, and then proceed to the next one. This sequential completion should not take more or less time than when the tasks are all worked on a little bit at a time, but never simultaneously.

However, it is still useful to distinguish pure sequential processing of tasks from the incessant cycling between tasks, which may be better denoted as time-sharing. As with a vacation time share between three people, it does not really make a time difference were the time per person to be used in one block of four months, or four separate blocks of one month each separated by a periodic hiatus.

Of course, there is one small fallacy here – in that time-sharing may be more efficient than sequential processing when the former allows downtime periods in sequential processing to be filled with another task. For example, we may be working on proving a theorem, having resolved not to undertake any other task unless the one at hand is completed. However, if one were to get stuck in the endeavor of proof, then it may be efficient to step away from the task and use the time getting some email out of the way. Time-sharing can be more efficient than sequential processing since it is the same as the latter without the constraint that any one given task be allocated to a single block of time. Time-sharing may be less efficient when there are switching costs that are incurred when moving from one task to the next, as we cycle through them all.

Whichever mode is efficient, there is one strikingly interesting parallel with modern computers. microprocessors are designed to time share, switching between processes on the computer at the speed of its internal clock. This has made multi-tasking on the computer very efficient. It is indeed ironic that so much of science fiction has been devoted to creating machines that behave like humans, when in fact, if anything, today we are closer to microprocessors in the way we handle tasks. Hence, a better view is to see that humans behave much more like microprocessors than vice versa. Given the complexity of human behavior, and the simplicity of the operation of the microprocessor, this is hardly surprising. Man to machine convergence is probably happening faster than we think.

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Term Papers and the Internet

March 29, 2006

The internet is making original thought obsolete.

As teachers we do not ask for blinding insights, just original work. Yet, access to the internet makes it too easy for students to avoid thinking by allowing effortless regurgitation of other people’s work, with sufficient modification to avoid plagiarism.

One (or maybe two) decades ago, a term paper required library research, and this usually resulted in a framework that placed the researched material in an analytical context of the student’s own making. It made the teacher’s job as reader and evaluator that much more interesting. We teachers do not want to read what other experts say – indeed, we are keenly interested instead in what our own home-grown talent can come up with after we have finished teaching them.

Neverthless, research on the internet is here to stay. But its presence is not benign. There are 3 levels of problems that I perceive:


  • Level 1 – Cheating & Plagiarism. I have stopped giving students a term paper to write as it became an exercise in frustration for me. Too many papers read as if there are two different writers, as the term paper oscillates between the student’s own writing style and that of the phantom from the web. I am often able to quickly google the source, which is only referenced half the time.

  • Level 2 – Absence of Originality. Even when the source is cited, there seems little point, as the bulk of a term paper ends up lacking original thought. Its all legal if you cite your source, but then what did the student do that a librarian could not?

  • Level 3 – Information death spiral. Web sources are often not first- hand thought, but rehashed from other web sites. So not only is the material turned in not original, its just plain poor quality. You can imagine what brain damage is being inflicted on people who have to grade this stuff. So I dont.

I am running scared – my own son does all his research on Wikipedia. He knows perfectly well how to stay legal and cite his sources, being told this in school and much more severely by both parents. But does he think when writing? Not sure – he knows how to argue his case with parents, but thats not original thought either. Amazingly, his school has a software that they use which works out how much of the submission was original, presumably by discounting all words in quotes or something like that (i don’t know for sure). It may also be that it references web search engines to match large sections of the turned in paper. So people are wary of the problem, and there is an attempt to redress it.

Looking up reference material is not bad per se, but making it too easy means there is no lag time between sourcing and production, which in the past when we went to the library interspersed some thinking time in between. This process of digesting the material so as to diverge and build from it one’s own living and breathing original contribution, is seemingly a retreating phenomenon.

My solution has been to require in-class project presentations. This does not prevent the creation of powerpoint slides that are mere distillations from the web. But it does force the students to think through their presentations, and to defend their projects in class. This can only be an interim solution. There must be some other way to induce deep, independent thought (yes, I know, its writing a PhD theses). Everyone cannot do doctoral work, but yes, every one can be a scholar. I hope the web does not impede this.