From learning machines to machine learning

For over a hundred years, we have learnt to be like machines.

Industrialists formed our education system to cultivate the labour necessary to run their industries. They divided us into ‘standards’ or ‘grades’ and processed us in batches. They administered a quality test to check if we can move to the next grade, much like stations on a conveyer belt. Like a siren at the end of a shift, the school bell tolls at the end of a school-day.

In the last hundred years, capital and machines were expensive, and labour was cheaper. The education system moulded us to think like machines – to do what we are told and not ask questions. School was meant to drill compliance, standardization and predictability into our psyche.

A hundred years later, the ratchet has turned several times. Capital and the means of production are now cheap and abundant – all you need is a laptop and an internet connection. What is scarce are the human skills of creativity and care – skills we had long relegated to being ‘soft-skills’ in the industrial age.

Our response now is to try and teach machines human skills. Machine learning is the means by which we try to make our machines more human-like. From schools that turned us into learning machines to schools that teach machine learning, we have come full circle.

In the decades past, the industrial world conditioned us to lose our humanity and rewarded us for working like a machine. In the decades to come, the spoils will go to those who have managed to preserve their humanity despite the education system.

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