Thursday, August 17, 2017

Critical thinking in a changing world

Monday evening, Gioia Deucher, the new CEO of swissnex San Francisco on Pier 17, hosted a double event on critical thinking. The first event was only for ETH alumni and consisted of networking followed by a speech by ETH President Lino Guzzella and a general discussion. Prof. Guzzella noted that in recent years, students have changed and despite social media have become much nerdier and socially isolated. Consequently, the ETH has to change how it teaches.

As a professor of mechanical engineering, Guzzella does not expect any new breakthroughs in the physics for building mechanical equipment. What is more important for a mechanical engineer is to understand the context requiring a new machine and grasp the problem holistically and proposing a new approach.

The human genetic code has not changed over the ages and is still the same as for hunter gatherers. Critical thinking is essential, but it is hard to criticize oneself: we are dependent on a group that mutually criticizes and debates.

This autumn, the ETH is introducing significant changes. In teaching, the emphasis will be more on understanding and solving problems than on learning. Students will have the option for project-oriented study and more personal coaching with group study. In the study directions, the ETH is starting a new department of medicine, which will allow a proper medical study. Initially, the new department will only go until the bachelor level, after which students can transfer directly to a Swiss university with a medicine program or change to a more traditional ETH department like bioinformatics. As we live longer and longer, significant medical progress is necessary to maintain life quality into the old age.

When a question came about ETH's plans for massive open online courses (MOOC), Prof. Guzzella stated that they go counter the new direction to foster critical thinking and team work: students need physical proximity and a shared experience to become extraordinary people.

The public second event, which had unexpectedly high attendance, started with lightning talks and a panel discussion, followed by a discussion with the audience and finally a standing dinner with animated discussions and networking.

The speakers were Lino Guzzella, President of ETH Zurich and Professor for thermotronics; Gerd Folkers, Chair Science Studies and Critical Thinking Initiative at ETH and former Head of the Collegium Helveticum, a joint think-tank of ETH and University of Zurich; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Professor in Literature in the Departments of Comparative Literature and of French & Italian at Stanford; Philippe Kahn, the CEO of Fullpower, the creative team behind the Sleeptracker IoT Smartbed technology platform and the MotionX Wearable Technology platform. The moderator was Chris Luebkeman, Arup Fellow and Global Director of Arup Foresight.

There was a consensus that to contribute to the wellness and progress of society, and it is indispensable to excel in critical thinking and bring about paradigm shifts. There is no point for a bright mind to just do repetitive intellectual tasks like at the Academy of Projectors. Critical thinking requires a fertile environment, therefore creating groups and projects is more important than promoting individual excellence.

Publications are a very bad metric. A paper needs the unpaid work of three reviewers and is expensive regarding social costs, yet 52% of publications are never cited and consequently have no value because they do not contribute to society.

Excellence in research requires freedom and money. Professors should not be told which research to conduct and should not waste time chasing grants. Science is for the good of society and society should fund research and tuition at universities (I never had to pay a penny of tuition for my diploma in mathematics and my doctorate in informatics). Critical thinking is what prevents the Lagado of Gulliver's third voyage: a habitat for scientists critically thinking in a changing world instead of an Academy of Projectors.

When Stanford wanted to introduce the option for STEM students to major or minor in literature, Prof. Gumbrecht was the strongest opponent. However, after the first year, he now realized that his best students had all come from STEM and he has become a strong advocate for the program.

speculative learning machine at the Academy of Projectors in Lagado