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On War Games and Human Learning

Recently my kids asked to watch a movie so I searched Netflix for something suitable. I came across a film from the 80’s I remember enjoying as a kid, War Games. In the movie a teenage hacker dials in to a mainframe in the State Department and initiates a thermonuclear war simulation. To obtain the password David (the hacker) researches the life of a professor who has supposedly designed his computer so that it can “learn”; so that is it has the ability to develop improved gaming strategies from the experience of playing the game repeatedly. David guesses the password and initiates a game with what he thinks is a toy development system. When federal officials show up he realizes what he’s actually done. David spends the rest of the movie trying to convince government officials that the computer is still “playing the game” without an understanding of the difference between gaming and reality, and that real lives are at stake.

Very little in the movie is believable, but I found it interesting to think about the way the film portrays the activity of learning.

We have a new thermostat called The Nest that “learns” our preferences by remembering the times and conditions under which we prefer certain settings in order to automate them. Many smart phone apps can “learn” in a similar way. The learning described in the beginning of War Games is of this sort.

However, the computer makes a quantum leap at the end of the film, a change I would argue constitutes a difference in kind rather than degree. After one paricularly tense scene everyone breathes a sigh of relief that the enemy missiles were mere phantoms. The relief is short lived, however, when the professor realizes the computer’s next move is to break the launch code and deploy the entire U.S. arsenal.

Previously, the professor lamented that he was never able to teach his computer the idea of futility. He compares global thermonuclear war to a game of tic-tac-toe in that it is always a tie with no winners. In a desperate attempt to save the world, David and the Professor endeavor to “teach” the idea of futility to the computer by having it play tic-tac-toe against itself. Anxious agents watch their massive screens as the mainframe simulates nuclear scenarios alongside games of tic-tac-toe at blinding speed. Its task: compare the two types of games in order to learn the idea of futility.

Despite the hokey plot elements, I found the result to be the most unbelievable part of the movie. The computer does it! It compares tic-tac-toe to nuclear warfare and abstracts the idea of futility. It then expresses its new knowledge by stating “strange game. The only way to win is not to play.” Finally it applies its knowledge and aborts the missile launch.

Do you recognize this sequence? Types – comparison – expression – application.

It is a different KIND of learning. It is the essence of human learning!

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