‘Education Never Ends, Watson’

Not Even Sherlock Holmes Could Fortell the Success of a Computer on a Popular TV Quiz Show

A few weeks ago, IBM’sWatson computer beat two former “Jeopardy” champs in answering questions. Actually, “beat” is too gentle of a term. The computer hung the humans out to dry.

Shortly thereafter, learning expertWill Thalheimer, via his blog (http://willthalheimer.typepad.com), asked a couple pertinent questions:

>> Does this mean that soon computers will be able to replace people in answering questions?
>>For us as workplace learning-and-performance professionals, does this mean we’ll be doing less training of people, and more training of machines?

“This will affect our field,” he opined. “Indeed it is already affecting our field to some extent as computers already provide support for folks who are answering questions. But when this reaches a tipping point we’ll just have to wait and see.”

As the New York Times explained, “Watson … is a computer akin to the one on ‘Star Trek’ that can understand questions posed in natural language and answer them.”

Like computers, trainers and educators can impart information to a captive audience. But unlike computers, they can also respond to the audience, accept questions and otherwise interact.

With Watson’s success, that edge in the training realm narrows. So what can educators and trainers do to head off these trends at the pass?Well-known learning expert Karl Kapp (http://www.karlkapp.com) has a possible answer:

Designers of instruction can create “learning experiences” using case studies, simulations, etc. to immerse the learner in dozens of similar (but not exactly the same) situations so the learner can recognize situations, not-by-rules, but by experience.

We can’t teach every rule in compliance training, or every answer to a customer’s objection in sales training or every combination of troubleshooting customer problems, but we can provide example after example after example that can help learners develop the ability to recognize and address situations and the right response.

Of course, the “Jeopardy” computer is onlyWatson 1.0, no more than a progenitor of future machines. It will replace jobs, just the same as centralized switching and automated answering systems have replaced human switchboard operators.

However, the good news is it will take a really, really special computer to replace teachers and trainers. As one wag put it: “A machine will exhibit intelligence when — without electronic prompting to do so — it begins its answer to a question by saying, ‘That reminds me of a story.’”

Leave a reply