Supercomputing, The Singularity, and 21st Century Teachers

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s coverage of the 2011 Supercomputing Conference (More on SC11 – “Broadening Engagement” and Conferences Are About People – “Broadening Engagement”) brings one of the most critical developments in technology to the rest of the world. With supercomputing, we may begin to see change as a line that curves upward, beginning slowly but gradually accelerating at an exponential rate. As the curve grows increasingly steep, we approach the singularity.

Frank Withrow has mentioned Ray Kurzweil in a number of articles in regard to the latter’s work as an inventor. I’ve been intrigued by Kurzweil’s ideas about the singularity, a point in time when computers become not only faster but smarter than humans. At this stage, human history is transcended by AI systems that are capable of improving themselves at exponential rates. (See Kurzweil’s The Law of Accelerating Returns*; it was published over a decade ago, but it clarifies some of his basic ideas.)

Supercomputing is a step toward not only faster and bigger but to “wider” as well for increased accessibility. The speed, size, and breadth will make it possible for computers to become increasingly intelligent and, eventually, reach a point where they can begin to recursively learn and reproduce on their own.

The notion of intelligent computers creating even more intelligent offspring, exponentially and ad infinitum, is the stuff of sci-fi for most people, but the possibility is more than fantasy. The coming years — Kurzweil suggests by mid-21st century — will no doubt bring us closer to the singularity, but I don’t think the outcome or process will pit computers against humans. We’ll still be in control, using computers that may be thousands if not millions of times smarter than we are. Despite their power, they’ll continue to be under our control as extensions of ourselves, tools that allow us to transcend the limits of our biological intelligence.

This projection of humans augmented by computer systems with unimaginable intelligence has tremendous implications for college and perhaps even secondary school educators. One of the most critical is the teacher’s evolving role. One way to gain a perspective of this change is to unbundle the role into essential components. For example, these are some of the general functions assigned to teachers:

  1. Course designer (content and pedagogy)
  2. Technology designer (learning environment)
  3. Evaluator (learning monitor)
  4. Research facilitator
  5. Skills facilitator (basic learning skills)
  6. Course facilitator (learning process)
  7. Advisor (guidance toward course completion)

Given today’s technology, all of these are the teacher’s responsibility. However, we’re seeing a gradual unbundling and reassignment of some of these functions. For example, the technology in a course is often designed and developed by instructional technology (IT) specialists; research, technology, and study skills are usually managed by support services such as the library, IT help desks, and tutoring labs. Thus, the teacher’s task is converging on course design, learning evaluation, advising, and course facilitation.

With the nearly limitless data mining, analytics, and interaction potential of powerful and intelligent computers, most or all of the functions outsourced to IT and support services can be and are being automated. In time, most if not all of the teachers’ remaining functions could also be handed over to smart computers:

  1. They design and develop courses based on parameters dictated by humans and on best content and approaches used in similar courses.
  2. They select and set up the best technology that’s available to accomplish course objectives.
  3. They monitor each student’s progress in learning.
  4. They provide training and assistance in conducting and using research.
  5. They provide training and assistance in course-specific learning skills.
  6. They guide students, individually and in groups, through the learning activities that make up the course.
  7. They continually advise students, individually, on what they need to do to stay on track to successfully complete the course.

In all functions, the computers monitor, gather, and analyze input and performance output data, 24-7, to recursively and formatively revise and change the environment or to individually advise students to improve learning. Humans will be there, too, to respond to needs that aren’t met by computers. However, even these functions could be eliminated as computers continually learn and adjust, adding to their repertoire of features and services.

In all of this, the one constant human element is the student. In this scenario, instruction is genuinely student centered. The student’s performance is constantly measured against formative and evaluative course objectives, and interventions are suggested as needed.

Student discussions in synchronous and asynchronous forums will, at first, continue to be guided by humans. However, as computers learn to assess and discriminate among posts and encourage meaningful comments, discussions, too, will gradually shift over to them.

Human teachers, even in this computer-mediated scenario, will not be eliminated. However, their roles will change. Freed from repetitive, lower-order tasks, they’ll be able to focus their attention on higher-order challenges that computers may not be able to manage. For example, they’ll respond to discussion posts that fall outside the range of the computer’s knowledge. In advising, they’ll intervene when student needs exceed the computer’s database of information. However, in each case, the new information is added to the base, expanding the computer’s knowledge and ability to respond effectively.

Perhaps the one area that human input will continue to be needed is in the creation of multimedia learning modules. The modules would be used by computers as resources for learning environments. In any case, most of the roles of human educators won’t be defined until the singularity arrives. Thus, we’re left to prepare as far as our imaginations will take us.

Students will interact with intelligent computers in nearly all phases of a course, and the computers will serve as their private guides and tutors. However, access to human staff will always be available when computers come up empty, but this need will gradually diminish as computers build their knowledge bases.

The real winners in this future scenario are the students. They’ll have 24-7 access to all phases of their courses and instant feedback and advice on all performances. They’ll be guided, individually, through each course and provided on the spot intervention services when they run into problems. Computers will be able to provide them with an unprecedented degree of individualization, feedback, and quality instruction instantly, 24-7.

* Click here for the Webcite version.

5 Responses

  1. While people are learning widgets and apps, some kinds of learning are going on in the field of supercomputing from which we all benefit.
    Every day we get the weather, learn about news all over the world and get the data and pictures, we profit from the health care amenities such as the Da Vinci surgery, and the visualization and modeling that lets the doctors see, before they do surgery. We have a method of predicting storms, and hurricanes and have a warning system for tsunami event. I am not sure if the average American knows of these or of the science gateways that link us to the new areas in Supercomputing.

    Some Examples


    An example of new ways of learning is COSEE’s initiative to teach Ocean Observatories.

    The earth has one big ocean with many features.
    The ocean is the defining feature of our planet. Ocean Literacy means understanding the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean. We all are affected by oceans.

    Ocean Observing Systems: From Your Eyes to Satellites

    Eyes on the Ocean teaches use how scientists see the ocean and react to the variables within the ecosystems.


    Even people in Washington DC have recently learned the power of volcanoes. We were surprised by a recent small quake. Partnerships between universities, federal and state agencies form the US volcano observatories.
    In October 2006 there was adopted a common system nationwide in the US for characterizing the level of unrest and eruptive activity at volcanoes. This system includes levels indicating both the eruptive state of a volcano and its potential hazard to aircraft. The world held its breath with the volcanic eruptions in Iceland and big data let us know or monitor the level of the quakes.
    Here is a Google web page that lets you monitor the big data that has been crunched to give you information.

    Here is an interactive site that lets you visualize the tectonic plates. My favorite Supercomputing tool for visualization is not one in a classroom but one that comes from the Dept of Commerce. I have seen it at conferences and in museums. It is a sphere with visualization. Science on a Sphere, NOAA. It is an awesome visual presentation which can be found in many museums at the moment.

    At this web site you can see it in all of its glory at difference venues
    There is one in Hilo , Hawaii, in the Sant Hall of Science at the Smithsonian and in many international sites.

    ‘Science On a Sphere (SOS)® is a room sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six foot diameter sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe. Researchers at NOAA developed Science On a Sphere® as an educational tool to help illustrate Earth System science to people of all ages. Animated images of atmospheric storms, climate change, and ocean temperature can be shown on the sphere, which is used to explain what are sometimes complex environmental processes, in a way that is simultaneously intuitive and captivating.”
    Science On a Sphere® extends NOAA’s educational program goals, which are designed to increase public understanding of the environment. Using NOAA’s collective experience and knowledge of the Earth’s land, oceans, and atmosphere, NOAA uses Science On a Sphere® as an instrument to enhance informal educational .programs in science centers, universities, and museums across the country. Science On a Sphere® is available to any institution and is currently in operation at a number of facilities in the US.
    Natural Disasters

    When the big oil spill happened in the Gulf there was a way that the TACC, Ranger Supercomputer was able to create a visualization for us to share and show to people of the damage, among other monitoring tools. TACC has a new system called Lone Star 4 which I saw at SC11 . I have spent time at TACC, They let us bring teachers from TCEA to learn something about Supercomputing in a tour.

    TACC Director Jay Boisseau, said, “Supercomputers like Lonestar 4 enable researchers to make breakthrough discoveries that advance our knowledge in science and engineering, and often produce transformational impacts for society as well. We’re proud to make Lonestar 4 available to researchers in Texas and across the country, and we will continue to increase its capabilities to facilitate new research, education, and discovery.”

    Researchers are conducting research on the newly deployed system across all scientific disciplines. Lonestar 4 is being used to model several phenomena in solid earth geophysics, including seismic wave propagation, mantle convection and the dynamics of polar ice sheets.Climatology anyone?

    Here are feature stories about TACC.

    San Diego Computer Center has interesting resources too.

    A partnership of 17 institutions, including the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego, today formally announced the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE).
    XSEDE will be the most advanced, powerful, and robust collection of integrated advanced digital resources and services in the world. Experts with SDSC will provide advanced user support and expertise for XSEDE researchers across a variety of HPC applications, in addition to support for the organization’s central accounting database.
    Scientists and engineers use these resources and services—things like supercomputers, collections of data, and new tools—to propel scientific discovery and improve our lives. They are a crucial part of research in fields such as earthquake engineering, materials science, medicine, epidemiology, genomics, astronomy, and biology.
    So we need to pay less attention to tweeting and social media and get cracking on sharing the knowledge of supercomputing with our teachers, educational communities and our neighborhood communities.

    Why not?

  2. [...] Supercomputing, The Singularity, and 21st Century Teachers [...]

  3. [...] Supercomputing, The Singularity, and 21st Century Teachers By Jim ShimabukuroEditorBonnie Bracey Sutton's coverage of the 2011 Supercomputing Conference (More on SC11 – "Broadening Engagement" and Conferences Are About People – "Broadening Engage… Source: [...]

  4. [...] I have been lucky enough to be involved in education for computer science at the supercomputing conference. Here is what I wrote in the Educational Technology Journal. [...]

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