2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those truly visionary movies that sticks with us because it was bold, challenging, and provided a stereotype of everything that could go wrong with a computer: HAL.
HAL was a talking computer that controlled all the functions of an entire spaceship. In "his" spare time he played chess with one of the crewmembers, gave him feedback on his drawings, and was genuinely helpful, until "he" felt threatened. One day, HAL, the perfect machine, made a mistake — nothing big, but enough to make the astronauts aboard ship decide to shut him down. HAL, of course, didn't like what the astronauts were planning. He began to eliminate the humans, one by one.
HAL gets such a bad rap that we forget the opportunity he offers education: truly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) that can help students in many areas, from chess to drawing to speech. A full grown HAL may be far off, but infant versions are already used to "understand" and mentor students in many areas. Outside education, AI is used by stockbrokers, doctors, and scientists. We should expect AI capabilities in many areas to merge and ultimately form an integrated HAL who can watch a classroom, answer questions on many topics in many languages, and recognize and remedy behavioral and learning dysfunctions. In a future in which students' interests will greatly out-pace a teacher's knowledge domain, AI mentors will become a teacher's best friend. Let's hope they are more human-friendly than HAL.
Jason Ohler has been a digital humanist, pioneer, and keynote speaker in the field of digital age living, learning, and leadership for two decades.