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The Turing Test: The Test our Students Won’t Ever Take That Will Significantly Influence Their Future

Photo Credit: Andy Kelly on Unsplash

In 1950, Alan Turing, a British mathematician and computer scientist, wrote an article, Computing and Machinery Intelligence, that questioned what it would mean for machines to think.  He proposed a test whereby someone asks a question and it is answered by a computer in another room. The proposal was that if the inquirer could not determine whether the responder is human or machine, then the computer passed the “Turing Test.”  This Ted Ed Talk also provides a good overview of the Turing Test.  Claims have been made that computers have already been able to pass the Turing Test. Others make the case that in order to pass, computers must be able to engage in a complex conversation with a human.  Regardless, it is predicted that advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will result in computers regularly surpassing human performance in every area by the time our current third-grade students graduate from high school- the year 2029. 

Futurist, author, inventor, and now Google employee, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that once AI passes the Turing Test, it will quickly go on to master what all humans can do, and then go beyond what humans can do.  He likely has a good handle on this, because his group at Google is the group that created semantic search. The technology they developed plays a role in Google Assistant and Google Home. Kurzweil’s belief is that the rapid advances of AI will continue throughout the 2030’s leading to additional technologies including the ability for nanorobots to scan the human brain, the creation of human 3D printers that can print spare body parts, and even the ability of people to “program” themselves.  Kurzweil’s view of these exponential technologies is one of hope for the future rather than fear. He believes AI provides an opportunity for humans to continue to amplify their intelligence and increase their ability to solve problems by joining the unique capacity of the human brain to make complex connections, with the power of deep and fast data analysis of AI. The truth is, we are already amplifying our intelligence every day as we carry our cell phones with us wherever we go like an additional appendage.  Should we view this as a crutch, with the belief that we should be able to think, create, and innovate without it? Or might we see it as a tool to extend and strengthen our human abilities?

Back in August, I wrote about my grandson, Luca, who turned one in July and what the world might be like when he graduates from high school in 2036.  I shared that the faculty and I at Roycemore would be spending time thinking about the key skills that students must gain to think, to create, and to innovate.  As I shared at our State of the School night in January, we are embracing a continued commitment to foundational knowledge but also thoughtfully incorporating the acquisition of what we are calling “Power Skills” (vs. “soft skills):  problem solving, collaboration, communication, empathy, follow-through, mindfulness, ability to work in teams and form teams, how to ask for help, ability to handle failure vs. fear of taking risk. Some of these skills could certainly be demonstrated by computers, but all of them uniquely benefit from what humans can bring to the “equation.”  

To advance our commitment to our students’ ability to gain these power skills, we are embracing several initiatives. Roycemore has become a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  This provides us with the opportunity to network with a community of like-minded schools around the country that are shining a light on the importance of providing opportunities for students to demonstrate competency and mastery.  Such opportunities are only becoming more important in the age of AI. With core programs such as January Short Term (JST), Personal Passion Projects (P3), and Theme Week, the mastery transcript offers a way to highlight the unique projects that our students undertake in each division of the school that is much more powerful than a traditional transcript.  Some of the top universities in the country have just admitted students whose applications were with the mastery transcript.  

In addition to exploring a new transcript model for our students, we have embraced design thinking in our program school-wide.  This problem-solving approach offers explicit opportunities for students to practice their power skills in authentic ways. Finally, a group of faculty have been meeting throughout the year to examine the potential for moving beyond an Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum to courses that provide for deeper explorations of a subject matter.  These college-level courses provide freedom for students and teachers to approach learning creatively and profoundly;  without the constraints of a prescribed national curriculum. Students have the ability to draw on experts, experiences, and course materials that provide exciting opportunities for deep and advanced learning.  The Upper School faculty will be piloting two courses next year offered in addition to our existing AP classes; America in Vietnam (which has a course prerequisite of AP US History, and Latin X Culture and Literature  (which has a course prerequisite of English III).  Whether AP will be dropped altogether is yet to be determined and we intend for it to be a thoughtful process.  As with all of our decisions at Roycemore, first and foremost, we ask “what’s best for kids?” Then we are guided by research and experience. 

What is certain is that Roycemore students need to know much more than how to do well on a test.  They need to learn to think creatively, to problem-solve in multiple ways, to draw upon diverse points of view, to network, and to collaborate using the latest technologies. They need to be able to tell compelling stories verbally, in writing, digitally, and artistically.  They should benefit from the sage wisdom of mentors and coaches who can guide them as generalists as well as experts who can help hone their thinking. They need to have a global understanding, to ascertain what is ethical in their decision-making, and to manage their lives with a balanced approach to their well-being.  This, and more, is what we want for our children as they march toward adulthood. Indeed, it will be essential if they are to thrive once computers start to consistently pass the Turing Test.