Sebastian Thrun has one scenario.

In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education

I do not think that there will be institutions as we think of them. I think that in about 15 or 20 years there will be learning platforms. The model that I have in mind is Neal Stephenson’s illustrated primer in The Diamond Age. I am actually trying to think through what it would take to produce something like that.

I think a key step would be developing software that can engage with students in a conversational way. This would provide the sort of personal instruction and coaching that I believe I provide in the classroom (perhaps my role is one of an ogre, but for now I am not thinking in Tyler’s terms).

I call this The Problem. In this post, I want to attempt to articulate The Problem.

The idea is to create a program for use on a tablet computer to help instruct students in an introductory statistics course. The program would assign problems to students and then interact with them in three ways.

1. If a student is stuck, give a hint.

2. If a student goes off in a wrong direction, guide the student back to the right direction.

3. If the student asks an open-ended question, give an appropriate answer.

For example, suppose that a student has seen my lecture on failure models (number 4 on this list) and is given the following problem:

the probability of drawing a spade from a well-shuffled deck of cards is 1/4. If you draw three cards from three different, well-shuffled decks, what is the probability that you do not draw any spades?

The student might first select one of two initial responses–either “I think I know how to do this” or “I don’t know where to start.” If the latter is selected, the computer might prompt the student by asking “Suppose we say that one success consists of drawing a spade. Call the probability p. What is p?” Further hints can be given, as needed.

Suppose that the student writes down (on the tablet) 1 – p3, which is a wrong answer. I want the computer to recognize the student’s handwriting (or be able to ask, “what does that say?” and understand the answer). Then I want the computer to say, “What probability will that give you? The probability p3 is the probability that…(the student answers) …And one minus that is the probability that…(the student answers, and I would hope sees what is wrong with the original answer)”

I see The Problem as one that involves natural-language processing, but in a confined domain. It should be considerably less difficult than the problem of language translation or the problem that Apple’s Siri attempts to address to be a generic personal assistant. The problem is more akin to writing an intelligent “help file” or customer support application.

However, I do think that The Problem is hard enough and important enough to be worth a lot of effort. To me, it is analogous to the problem of building a self-driving car. Along the way, you will encounter many sub-problems that need to be solved. Solving these sup-problems will advance the generic capabilities of AI. One capability will be self-improvement. That is, as it is put to use, the software will encounter new events (new ways for students to go wrong, new questions that they ask) and it will need to expand its knowledge base in response to these new events.

If you are interested in The Problem, let me know. I could see myself putting together a team to work on it.