'This is what we are hearing from the DfE robots: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap'

20th March 2016 at 12:01
bernard trafford, robot, artificial intelligence, 2001: a space odyssey, daleks
Think of a Dalek, with the warmth and humanity removed – that's the Department for Education spokespeople, according to a leading headteacher

AI: it’s all the rage now.

Artificial intelligence, as exemplified by Google’s DeepMind computer, has just beaten – no, wiped the floor with – Go grandmaster Lee Sedol. Using the AlphaGo programme, the computer, which cleverly learns as it plays, thrashed the expert 4-1.

That’s some AI: not to be mistaken with the agricultural use of those initials – which, according to the old joke, is when the farmer, not the bull, does it to the cow.

In my youth, I read a lot of science fiction. Isaac Asimov tangled with the issue of computers and robots, Asimov developing his concept of the Three Laws of Robotics, which would prevent robots from harming the human race. By contrast, Arthur C Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey hypothesised that computers that could learn – true AIs – were a threat to mankind.

This is important again now. In my very early years, one of my favourite television programmes was Fireball XL5. It even pre-dated Thunderbirds, whose co-founder, Sylvia Anderson (the model for Lady Penelope), died this week. One of my clear memories from that show, amid the hilariously bouncing puppets, was Robert the Robot. I often wondered what happened to him. Was he scrapped, or stuck in a museum like those early puppets?

No. He has been secretly developed and reborn in the DfE: he is now the Department for Education’s spokesperson.

Maths stance doesn't compute

You think I’m making it up? Consider for a moment any recent DfE pronouncement. Monday’s Times published a headline (admittedly a small one) on its front page: "Maths crisis puts British pupils at back of the class". There followed a predictable outline of concerns that British pupils were falling behind the rest of the world in maths: in the most recent global rankings Britain came 26th out of 65, behind Poland, Estonia and Vietnam. The CBI’s Director of Employment and Skills, Neil Carberry said: “The system in England encourages teaching to the test, and only a fundamental review of the 14-18 curriculum can address this.”

Fair point, you may think. But how did the DfE respond? A spokeswoman was reported as saying: "The quality of maths teaching is improving dramatically in this country because we have reformed the curriculum, bringing maths teaching into line with international standards, ensuring young people can compete with the best in the world regardless of their background."

Business as usual at the DfE, then. It’s bland, doesn’t answer the question at all and, indeed, says nothing, following the standard DfE pattern: "We’re right. We’re solving it. Shut up."

This happens all the time. Remember that spat last autumn about whether independent or state schools were scoring more highly? I’m not picking at that scab again, but must quote another robotic DfE line in response: “We think the data is hugely welcomed and we think that it vindicates that our reforms are working and the next step should be to turbocharge those reforms.”

That quote would not score highly in any government grammar test for 11-year-olds.

The DfE singularity

Whether presented as male or female, the DfE spokespeople are now, I am convinced, one single robot. As for the voice, imagine Stephen Hawking’s mechanical tone, but without the genius and sense of humour that drive it. Think of a Dalek, with the warmth and humanity removed.

That is what we are hearing consistently from the DfE: monotonous, meaningless, triumphalist claptrap. On every issue, the Department simply says: "We’re right. Anyone else is wrong. And now I’m putting my fingers in my ears and going naa naa naa naa!"

You think I’m making it up? Just watch it. In this blog I’ll be keeping an eye on the DfE and tracking Robert the Robot’s progress. You see, I think he’s the opposite of an AI. Far from learning and becoming more intelligent, he is programmed to become steadily more bland and less informative.

Sad, really. When Robert was a character in Fireball XL5, I was rather fond of him.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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