Preparing for College

College Education vs. Artificial Intelligence

A few weeks ago, I updated the operating system of my iMac. As usual, I was several generations behind in making my updates. I think my “Mountain Lion” OS was at least three generations old, and its browser, Safari, was starting to be rejected by a number of sites that I visited. So, when I got word of the new “Sierra” OS update, I marked my calendar and waited impatiently.

The big day came and I set aside a full afternoon to make the download. All went well but it took a long time. That was due to both the size of the update and the not-world-class speed of my Internet connection. I was just happy that nothing got hung up midway into the download. I’ve had that happen before and it causes all sorts of angst and computer issues, especially for techno-idiots such as yours truly here.

So, as I was reading about Sierra, I discovered that it had a feature about which I had heard but never experienced: Siri. For those (no doubt few) of you who don’t know what Siri is, here’s the scoop:

Siri is a built-in “intelligent assistant” that enables users of Apple iPhone 4S and later and newer iPad and iPod Touch devices to speak natural language voice commands in order to operate the mobile device and its apps. Users can speak commands — and receive audible confirmation from Siri — to send messages, place calls, set reminders, operate iTunes and more.


Siri can work across multiple iPhone and iPad apps as needed in order to accomplish its tasks. Siri also supports extended dictation, enabling users to have their words translated into text for use in e-mail and text messages, Facebook status updates, tweets, note-taking Web searching and similar operations.

Siri also features prominently in the Siri Eyes Free and iOS in the Car technologies from Apple that provide voice command support of a car’s audio system or in-vehicle infotainment system.

This information was written before Sierra, so keep that in mind. Anyway, Siri can be accessed both by voice and keyboard. The voice option is what I was more interested in because I imagined that it would give this old guy a taste of that techno-fringe area of AI … Artificial Intelligence!

I had already read and heard so much about AI that I couldn’t wait to engage it, just to see how far we have advanced in trying to recreate a brain outside of our skulls. So, once my shakedown cruise on Sierra had confirmed that all was working as advertised, I summoned Siri by clicking its icon at the bottom of my screen. At once, a small box slid forth from the upper-right corner of my monitor and a glowing beam invited me to either speak or type. The little microphone symbol indicated the pathway to verbal communication, so I clicked that.

Immediately, a calm woman’s voice greeted me and offered to help. I already knew that I could tailor her voice into any number of accents. I was curious about “Australian,” but for now I preferred to stay with “American,” being the jingoistic chap that I am.


I started off with an easy question, one that I had been thinking about for a few days: “What is the fuel tank capacity of a 1958 Corvette?” (I’m fortunate enough to own one of these beauties and was doing some calculations about preparing her for winter storage, using a fuel preservative. Siri responded right away with something along the lines of, “Here are the specifications for a 1958 Corvette,” and I saw a dropdown box that had all the key technical specs for my ‘Vette — not only fuel capacity (just over 16 gallons) but also tire size, tire pressure, various horsepowers according to engine options, transmission gear ratios, etc. I was stunned and pleased.

I was startled that so much knowledge could be gained by “just asking.” This started me to thinking. I wondered if all the predictions about AI taking over humankind were true. I just read yesterday that Stephen Hawking predicts that within one thousand years the human race will be gone, banished by robots with their raging AI. That’s an ominous pronouncement, but I was pretty darn impressed that my Siri knew about old Corvettes.

So, I delved deeper, steering my inquisition to the subject of college. “What are the acceptance rates of the Ivy League universities?” I queried.

Boom! A list appeared with all the percentages by school. Wow.

Maybe Hawking was right. We could all soon be in Siri-ous trouble. (You knew I had to work that in somehow.)

With my curiosity now fully piqued, I spent at least another hour testing Siri on topics ranging from Mickey Mantle to The Three Stooges. No wonder we’re doomed.

Eventually, I tired of my questioning and it appeared that Siri was incapable of being exhausted (another clue about our future), so I left my computer to catch some Seinfeld reruns. My brain’s alpha waves look like small whitecaps on a rain puddle.

During the long commercial breaks on Seinfeld, I got to thinking about Siri and the implications for education. I thought that if an AI mechanism has access to an infinite database of knowledge, why is it necessary for us to go to school, let alone go to college? We could just ask Siri-like devices questions about what we needed to know and take it from there, such as:


“Siri, how do you calculate the area of a triangle?” “Hey, Siri, what was the Civil War all about?” Yo, Siri, what does ‘co-valence’ mean?” Got the picture?

After the end of Seinfeld‘s “Backward Episode,” and being the intrepid researcher that I am, I went back to my iMac and summoned Siri again. What she doesn’t know is that my degree is in music history and literature, a wonderful liberal arts discipline that I highly recommend to all you who don’t know what a “program chanson” is.

Thus, with that stealth qualification, I asked Siri a series (nothing like a Siri series) of questions about music and eagerly awaited her expert replies:

Dave: What was Sviatoslav Richter’s pet peeve regarding Glenn Gould’s performing?

Siri: The Richter scale gives a numeric representation of the severity of earthquakes.

Okay. But …

Dave: What about Glenn Gould’s performances?

Siri: Gold prices rise when currency values go down, as do other precious metals.

Siri! Let’s try another area.


Dave: How much does a new Steinway concert grand cost?

Siri: Ben Stein’s way of explaining economics is popular.

Yikes. Maybe I should try an Australian accent. One more try …

Dave: Which is the most popular late Beethoven string quartet?

Siri: Late second quarter U.S. financial results continue their string of slow growth.

Enough. Back to Seinfeld.

Obviously, we’re safe from Hawking’s prophecy for at least a little while.

Now I may be wrong, but I don’t think we should ditch traditional education just yet, especially in college liberal arts.


Speaking of the liberal arts, allow me to cite one of my favorite writers, Victor Davis Hanson who notes regarding the effects of technology:

… The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate. Twitter and text-messaging result in economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern — communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for effective and dignified expression. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, in a way analogous to the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values.

Life is not just acquisition and consumption. Engaging English prose uplifts the spirit in a way Twittering cannot. The anti-Christ video shown by the Smithsonian at the National Portrait Gallery will fade when the Delphic Charioteer or Michelangelo’s David does not. Appreciation of the history of great art and music fortifies the soul, and recognizes beauty that does not fade with the passing fad.

America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art, and music is not one of them.

I couldn’t agree more, especially as the sound of Ben Stein’s gold Steinway echoes in my brain.


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