Discover Problems, Don’t Solve Them

A while ago I wrote a post called Bring me problems not solutions. An article by Don Peppers on Linkedin called ‘Class of 2013: You Can’t Make a Living Just by Solving Problems’ adds an interesting spin to this and piles even more pressure on those people entering the job market now, as well as those of us figuring out how to stay in it!As we all know, Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. As this power has increased the types of problems computers can solve has also increased exponentially. By the time today’s graduates reach retirement age, say in 50 years time (which itself might be getting further away thus compounding the problem) computers will be several million times more powerful than they are today.

As Peppers says:

If you can state something as a technical problem that has a solution – a task to be completed – then eventually this problem can and will be solved by computer.

This was always the case, it’s just that as computers are able to perform even more calculations per second the kinds of problems will become more and more complex that they can solve. Hence the white collar and skilled professional jobs will also become consumed by the ever increasing power of the computer. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, financial analysts, traders and even those modern day pariahs of our society journalists and politicians will continue to see their jobs become redundant.

So if the salaried jobs of even those of us who solve problems for a living continue to disappear what’s left? Peppers suggests there are two potential areas that computers will struggle with, one is to become very good at dealing with interpersonal issues – people skills (darn it, those pesky HR types are going to be in work for a while longer). The other way is not to focus on solving problems but on discovering them.

Discovering problems is something that computers find hard to do, and probably will continue to do so. It’s just too difficult to bound the requirements and define the tasks that are needed for creating a problem. Discovering new problems has another name, it’s also known as “creativity.” Creativity involves finding and solving a problem that wasn’t there before. How to be creative is a very profitable source of income for authors right now with more and more books appearing on this subject every month. However, here’s the irony, just as we are realising we need to be fostering creativity as a skill even more we are quite literally turning the clock back on our children’s innate abilities to be creative. As explained in this video (The Faustian Bargain) “the way we raise children these days is at odds with the way we’ve evolved to learn”.

Sadly our politicians don’t seem to get this. Here in the UK, the head of state for education, Michael Gove, doesn’t understand creativity and his proposed education reforms “fly in the face of all that we know about creativity and how best to nurture it”. It seems that the problem is not just confined to the UK (and probably other Northern Hemisphere countries). In India the blogger and photographer Sumeet Moghe is thinking that his daughter doesn’t deserve school. and is struggling with what alternatives a concerned parent might provide.

So, what to do? Luckily there are people that realise the importance of a creative education, fostering a love of learning and nurturing the concept of lifelong learning. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how schools kill creativity is one of the most watched presentations of all time. So, what to do? Watch this and other talks by Ken Robinson as well as other talks on TED that deal in matters of creativity. Learn what you can and get involved in the “creative life” as much as possible. If you live in countries that don’t support creativity in education then write to your elected representative and ask her or him what they, and the government they are a part of, are doing about it. For the sake of all of us this is a problem that is too important to let our leaders get away with not fixing.

Is the Raspberry Pi the New BBC Microcomputer?

There has been much discussion here in the UK over the last couple of years about the state of tech education and what should be done about it. The concern being that our schools are not doing enough to create the tech leaders and entrepreneurs of the future.

The current discussion kicked off  in January 2011 when Microsoft’s director of education, Steve Beswick, claimed that in UK schools there is much “untapped potential” in how teenagers use technology. Beswick said that a Microsoft survey had found that 71% of teenagers believed they learned more about information technology outside of school than in formal information and communication technology (ICT) lessons. An interesting observation given that one of the criticisms often leveled at these ICT classes is that they just teach kids how to use Microsoft Office.The discussion moved in August of 2011, this time at the Edinburgh International Television Festival where Google chairman Eric Schmidt said he thought education in Britain was holding back the country’s chances of success in the digital media economy. Schmidt said he was flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools, despite what he called the “fabulous initiative” in the 1980s when the BBC not only broadcast programmes for children about coding, but shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes.

January 2012 saw even the schools minister, Michael Gove, say that the ICT curriculum was “a mess” and must be radically revamped to prepare pupils for the future (Gove suspended the ICT Curriculum in September 2012). All well and good but as some have commented “not everybody is going to need to learn to code, but everyone does need office skills”.

In May 2012 Schmidt was back in the UK again, this time at London’s Science Museum where he announced that Google would provide the funds to support Teach First – a charity which puts graduates on a six-week training programme before deploying them to schools where they teach classes over a two-year period.

So, what now? With the new ICT curriculum not due out until 2014 what are the kids who are about to start their GCSE’s to do? Does it matter they won’t be able to learn ICT at school? The Guardian’s John Naughton proposed a manifesto for teaching computer science in March 2012 as part of his papers digital literacy campaign.  As I’ve questioned before should it be the role of schools to teach the very specific programming skills being proposed; skills that might be out of date by the time the kids learning them enter the workforce? Clearly something needs to be done otherwise, as my colleague Dr Rick Robinson says, where will the next generation of technology millionaires come from? bbc micro

Whatever shape the new curriculum takes, one example (one that Eric Schmidt himself used) of a success story in the learning of IT skills is that of the now almost legendary BBC Microcomputer. A project started 30 years ago this year. For those too young to remember, or were not around in the UK at the time, the BBC Microcomputer got its name from project devised by the BBC to enhance the nation’s computer literacy. The BBC wanted a machine around which they could base a series called The Computer Programme, showing how computers could be used, not just for computer programming but also for graphics, sound and vision, artificial intelligence and controlling peripheral devices. To support the series the BBC drew up a spec for a computer that could be bought by people watching the programme to actually put into practice what they were watching. The machine was built by Acorn the spec of which you can read here.ba8dd-bbcmicroscreen

The BBC Micro was not only a great success in terms of the television programme, it also helped spur on a whole generation of programmers. On turning the computer on you were faced with the screen on the right. The computer would not do anything unless you fed it instructions using the BASIC programming language so you were pretty much forced to learn programming! I can vouch for this personally because although I had just entered the IT profession at the time this was in the days of million pound mainframes hidden away in backrooms guarded jealously by teams of computer operators who only gave access via time-sharing for minutes at a time. Having your own computer which you could tap away on and get instant results was, for me, a revelation.

Happily it looks like the current gap in the IT curriculum may about to be filled by the humble Raspberry Pi computer. The idea behind the Raspberry Pi came from a group of computer scientists at Cambridge, England’s computer laboratory back in 2006. As Ebon Upton founder and trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation said:

Something had changed the way kids were interacting with computers. A number of problems were identified: the colonisation of the ICT curriculum with lessons on using Word and Excel, or writing webpages; the end of the dot-com boom; and the rise of the home PC and games console to replace the Amigas, BBC Micros, Spectrum ZX and Commodore 64 machines that people of an earlier generation learned to program on.

Out of this concern at the lack of programming and computer skills in today’s youngsters was born the Raspberry Pi computer (see below) which began shipping in February 2012. Whilst the on board processor and peripheral controllers on this credit card sized, $25 device are orders of magnitude more powerful than anything the BBC Micros and Commodore 64 machines had, in other ways this computer is even more basic than any of those computers. It comes with no power supply, screen, keyboard, mouse or even operating system (Linux can be installed via a SD card). There is quite a learning curve just to get up and running although what Raspberry Pi has going for it that the BBC Micro did not is the web and the already large number of help pages as well as ideas for projects and even the odd Raspberry Pi Jam (get it). Hopefully this means these ingenious devices will not become just another piece of computer kit lying around in our school classrooms.e65ef-raspberrypi

The Computer Literacy Project (CLP) which was behind the idea of the original BBC Micro and “had the grand ambition to change the culture of computing in Britain’s homes” produced a report in May of this year called The Legacy of the BBC Micro which, amongst other things, explores whether the CLP had any lasting legacy on the culture of computing in Britain. The full report can be downloaded here. One of the recommendations from the report is that “kit, clubs and formal learning need to be augmented by support for individual learners; they may be the entrepreneurs of the future“. 30 years ago this support was provided by the BBC as well as schools. Whether the same could be done today in schools that seem to be largely results driven and a BBC that seems to be imploding in on itself is difficult to tell.

And so to the point of this post: is the Raspberry Pi the new BBC Micro in the way it spurred on a generation of programmers that spread their wings and went on to create the tech boom (and let’s not forget odd bust) of the last 30 years? More to the point, is that what the world needs right now? Computers are getting getting far smarter “out of the box”. IBM’s recent announcements of it’s PureSystems brand promise a “smarter approach to IT” in terms of installation, deployment, development and operations. Who knows what stage so called expert integrated systems will be at by the time today’s students begin to hit the workforce in 5 – 10 years time? Does the Raspberry Pi have a place in this world? A world where many, if not most, programming jobs continue to be shipped to low cost regions, currently the BRIC, MIST countries and so on, I am sure, the largely untapped African sub-continent.

I believe that to some extent the fact that the Raspberry Pi is a computer and yes, with a bit of effort, you can program it, is largely an irrelevance. What’s important is that the Raspberry Pi ignites an interest in a new generation of kids that gets them away from just consuming computing (playing games, reading Facebook entries, browsing the web etc) to actually creating something instead. It’s this creative spark that is needed now, today and as we move forward that, no matter what computing platforms we have in 5, 10 or 50 years time, will always need creative thinkers to solve the worlds really difficult business and technical problems.

And by the way my Raspberry Pi is on order.