Opinion | Why Adults Lose the ‘Newbie’s Thoughts’

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Opinion | Why Adults Lose the ‘Beginner’s Mind’

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ezra small

I'm Ezra Klein and this is The Ezra Klein Show.

It probably won't surprise you that I'm one of those parents who read a lot of books about parents. And they are mostly bad, especially the books for dads. So many of these books have the odd tone, "dude, you're going to be a father, brother". It's terrible literature. But one of the great discoveries for me in the world of parenting books was Alison Gopnik's work. Gopnik heads the cognitive development and learning laboratory at UC Berkeley. She works there in both psychology and philosophy. It is part of the A.I. Working group there. And one of the things about her job that sets me apart is that she uses children and studies children to understand us all. She takes childhood seriously as a phase of human development. And why not? You are watching the consciousness go online in real time. They observe how language, culture and social rules are adopted, learned and changed which is important. Your books have not only changed the way I see my son. You have really changed the way I see myself, the way I see us all. And one of them that I read recently is The Philosophical Baby, which blew me a little. Because what she's doing in this book is to show through a lot of experimentation and research that there is a way in which children are much smarter than adults – I think that's the right way to say that – a way and The Strangest and Goofiest ways in which behaviors are actually remarkable. This is their core argument. Children are prepared to learn. And when you tune a mind to study, it used to work really differently than a mind that already knows a lot. The efficiency our minds develop as we age has amazing benefits. Unlike my son – and I don't want to brag here – unlike my son, I can make it from his bedroom to the kitchen without stopping. I can just get right there. But even in contrast to my son, I take so much for granted. I struggle so hard to actually take the world on its own terms and deduce how it works. I've learned so much that I've lost the ability to unlearn what I know. And that means that sometimes I've also lost the ability to question things properly. So this is not just a conversation about kids or for parents. It's a conversation about people for people. We spend so much time and effort teaching children how to think like adults. One message from Gopnik's work, and one that I take seriously, is that as adults we need to spend more time and effort thinking more like children. As always, my email address is [email protected] if there is anything you want to teach me. But this is Alison Gopnik.

You write that children are not just flawed adults, but primitive adults who gradually reach our perfection and complexity. Instead, children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. How?

alison gopnik

From an evolutionary biology perspective, one of the things that really stands out is this relationship between what biologists call life history, how our evolutionary sequence evolves, and things like our intelligence. And there is a very, very general relationship between an organism's length of childhood and roughly its intelligence, the size of its brain, and its flexibility. And one idea that I think a lot of us have now is that part of it is that you really have these two different creatures. So you have a creature that was really designed to explore, learn to change. This is the child form. And then you have this other creature who is really meant, as computer scientists say, to go out, find resources, make plans, make things happen, including finding resources for that wild, wacky explorer you find in your nursery to have. And the idea is that these two different developmental and evolutionary agendas come with really different kinds of knowledge, really different kinds of calculations, really different kinds of brains, and I think very different kinds of experiences in the world. The way you experience the world, your consciousness, is really different when your agenda is going to be getting the next thing done, figuring out how to do it, figuring out what's next, what to do after that. versus extracting as much information as possible from the world. And I think adults have the ability to go back and forth between these two states to some extent. But I think babies and toddlers are in this exploratory state all the time. This is exactly what they are designed for. They are like a different kind of creature from the adults. You may be wondering if there are other ways that evolution could have solved this exploration, exploited the compromise, this problem of how to get a creature that can do things but can also really learn a lot. And Peter Godfrey-Smith's wonderful book – I've just read Metazoa – talks about the octopus. And the octopus is very puzzling because the octos do not have a long childhood. And yet they seem really smart and they have these big brains with lots of neurons. But it also turns out that octos actually have divided brains. So you have one brain in the middle in your head, and then you have a different brain, or maybe eight brains in each of the tentacles. And if you're actually watching what the octos are doing, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. You will get information and find out what the water is like. And then the central brain says things like, OK, now it's time to inject. Now is the time to get some food. So my thought is that we can envision an alternate evolutionary path where each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two year old's, right? So that you always try to get them to stop exploring because you had to have lunch. I suspect an octo mind is like that. Now we are obviously not like that. But I think even human adults, this could be an interesting model for some of what it is like to be a human adult in particular. I think we have children who really have this discovery brain and experience. They are like our tentacles. They go out and find out things in the world. And then we have adults who are really the brains that actually go out and do things. But I think even as adults we can have this kind of split-brain phenomenon where part of our experience is like we're a kid again and vice versa.

ezra small

I think this is an answer that will bring out 100 science fiction short stories as people imagine the stories you are describing here. One of the things I really like about it is that it leads to a real respect for the child's brain. If you define intelligence as the ability to learn quickly and learn flexibly, a two-year-old is a lot smarter than me right now. I have more knowledge and I have more experience and I have more ability to use existing knowledge. However, they have more capacity, flexibility, and variability. Is that right? And what gives it this flexibility, insofar as this is the case? What are the tradeoffs to have this flexibility?

alison gopnik

Yeah, I think a really deep idea that originated in computer science – actually from the original design of the computer – is this idea of ​​the trade-off between exploration or exploit, as they call it. So when you think about intelligence, there is a real trade-off between your ability to explore as many options as possible and your ability to pinpoint and implement a particular option quickly and efficiently. And it turns out that it's really impossible to get a system that optimizes these two things at the same time, that explores and exploits them at the same time, because they are really deeply in tension with each other, even if you just do math. And the way that computer scientists have figured out to solve this problem, very characteristically, is to give the system a chance to examine it first, find out all the information and then, once it has the information, it can go out and it can take advantage later. So explore first and then take advantage of it. And I think evolution has used this strategy especially in shaping human development because we have these really long childhoods. But I think you can see the same thing in nonhuman animals, and not just mammals, but birds, and maybe even insects. So you see this really deep tension that I think we face all the time, how much we think about different options and how much we act efficiently and quickly. Again, there is an intrinsic tension between your knowledge and your openness to new possibilities. One type of something that you can formally show is that when I know a lot, I should really be relying on that knowledge. And I should, to some extent, discount something new someone tells me. If, on the other hand, I don't know a lot, then by definition I have to be open to more knowledge. But I think it's more than just the fact that you have what the Zen masters call beginners, rightly, that you're starting to not know that much. I think we can actually point out things like the physical makeup of a child's brain and an adult's brain that make it differently suited for exploration and exploitation.

ezra small

You have some work on it. What is different in the two brains?

alison gopnik

So there are two major areas of development that seem to be different. One of them is that the young brain begins to make many, many new connections. For example, if you look at a diagram of synaptic development, you can see that you have this early stage where many, many, many new connections are being made. And then you have this later stage where the connections that you use frequently work well, become maintained, strengthened, and become more efficient. And then those who are not circumcised, as neuroscientists say. They kind of disappear. The consequence of this is that you have this young brain that has much of what neuroscientists call plasticity. It can essentially change very easily. But it's not very good at putting on your jacket and going to preschool in the morning. It is not very good to do what it takes to be good. And it's especially not good at inhibition. It is especially not good to limit things like one part of the brain to what another part of the brain will do. So this is a change that has changed from those many local connections, a lot of plasticity, to something that has longer and more efficient connections but is less changeable. The other change that is particularly relevant to humans is that we have the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that is sort of an executive office of the brain where long term planning, inhibition, focus, all of these things seem to be done by this part of the brain. And what happens to development is that as you get older, that part of the brain, that executive part, gains more and more control over the rest of the brain. So that the ability to have an impulse in the back of your brain and in the front of your brain can go in and out. Or there is a distraction in the back of your brain, something in your field of vision that is not relevant to your work. And the front part can literally turn off that other part of your brain. However, this process takes a long time. So when you start out you have a lot less of that kind of frontal control, more of, I think, in some ways almost more like the octos where parts of your brain do their own thing. And as you get older, you get more and more of that control.

ezra small

And is that the dynamic that leads to this headlight consciousness, to the differentiation of the lantern consciousness? And can you talk about it? Because I know I think about it all the time.

alison gopnik

So these are two really, really different types of consciousness. One type of awareness – this is an old metaphor – is to see attention as a spotlight. It comes in. It illuminates what you want to find out. And you don't see things on the other side. And I think that in other states of consciousness, especially the state of consciousness that you are in as a child – but I think there are things that adults do that put them in that state too – you have something that is a lot more is like a lantern. So you are actually taking in information from everything that is going on around you. And most importantly, will this teach me anything? Is this new? Is this interesting? Is this curious instead of focusing your attention and awareness on just one thing? So many theories of consciousness start from what I consider professorial consciousness. Surprise, surprise, when philosophers and psychologists think about consciousness, they think about the kind of consciousness that philosophers and psychologists often have. And that kind of awareness is, for example, that you are sitting in your chair. You have to write the paper. You are desperately trying to focus on the specific things you said you would do. And then you get kind of distracted and your thoughts wander a bit. And you start thinking about other things. And that kind of purposeful, focused awareness that is very much related to the sense of self – so there is an ego trying to finish the paper or answer the emails or do all the things that I do must – that is It was really the focus of many theories of consciousness as to whether that type of consciousness was what consciousness was about. And we can even show neurologically that in this state, for example, something happens when I take care of something, when I pay attention to something that is happening, what I pay attention to is much brighter and more alive. And I actually shut down all the other things that I'm not paying attention to. You can even see that in the brain. The part of your brain that is relevant to what you are doing becomes more active, more plastic and more changeable. And the other parts in the vicinity are locked again. So there is a really nice picture of what is happening in the professor's mind. This is how consciousness works. And again, perhaps unsurprisingly, people have pretended that this type of awareness is what awareness is really about. This is really what you want when you are conscious. And what I would argue is that there are all these other kinds of states of experience – and not just me, but other philosophers as well. There are all of these other ways of being sentient, of being aware, of being aware that are not like that at all. An interesting example that actually has some studies on is thinking about when you are completely immersed in a really interesting movie. You're kind of gone Your self is gone. You don't decide what to look for in the film. The film is just utterly captivating. In the state of this focused, purposeful awareness, these frontal areas are very involved and very engaged. And there actually seem to be two ways. One of them is the purposeful path, which they sometimes refer to as a task-based activity. And the other is the so-called standard mode. And that is the way of ruminating or thinking about the other things you have to do to be on your head as we say as the other mode. When you are looking at someone who is in the scanner and who is really absorbed in a great movie, none of these parts are really active. Instead, other parts of the brain are more active. And that brain, the brain of the person who was included in the film, is more like the child's brain.

ezra small

But now, whether you are a philosopher or not, an academic or a journalist, or just someone who spends a lot of time on the computer or as a student, we now have a modernity that is probably constantly training something more like headlamp awareness more than in other times in of human history. And something I took from your book is that there is the ability to train, or at least experience, different types of consciousness through different types of other experiences like traveling, or you are talking about meditation. But one of the thoughts it sparked for me, as someone who's had quite a lot to do with meditation for the past decade, is a real dominance of Vipassana style concentration meditation, single point meditations. Just watch your breath. Just think of the breath right at the edge of the nostril. And without taking anything from that tradition, I wondered if one reason that has become so dominant in America, and Northern California in particular, is that it goes very well with the kind of focus in consciousness that our economy is consciously seeking to develop in us, to get this done, to be very focused, not to think too much, like a neoliberal form of consciousness. Do you think there is something to it?

alison gopnik

I think that going out for example and saying I'm going to meditate and stop looking for goals is a paradox. Because I have this goal, I want to be a much better meditator. And I've done a bit of meditation and workshops, and it's always a bit amusing to see the young men who are going to prove they can meditate better. You can sit longer than anyone. But I think it's important to say when you are thinking about things like meditation, or when thinking about alternative states of consciousness in general, that there are many different alternative states of consciousness. So it's not just a choice between a lantern and a spotlight. There are many different ways of being in the world, many different types of experiences that we have. And I suspect they all have their own focus, a different kind of focus, a different way of being. And in meditation, you can see the contrast between some of these more pointed types of meditation and meditation sometimes called open mind meditation. So open mind meditation is when you are not just focusing on one thing, but trying to be open to everything that is happening around you. And the phenomenology of it is very similar to this type of lantern that it lights everything at once. And I think this kind of open meditation and the kind of consciousness that goes with it actually resembles things that the romantic poets like Wordsworth, for example, talked about. So there is this nice concept that I like from the numinous. And sometimes it's spiritual related, but I don't think it has to be like that. It is this idea that you are walking around the world. And often, all of a sudden, when you are an adult, everything in the world seems meaningful and important and important and meaningful that you are insignificant by comparison. My colleague Dacher Keltner studied Reverence. And awe is an example of that. But the numinous kind turns the dial on in awe. And part of the number is that it doesn't just have to be about something bigger than you, like a mountain. It could just be your garden or the street you are walking on. And suddenly that is illuminated. Everything around you is illuminated. And somehow you yourself disappear. And I think that's the best analogy I can think of for the state the kids are in. And it is worth noting that the children are not always in this state. So, perhaps because they spend so much time in this state, the children can also be fussy and moody and desperately want their next meal or desperate consolation. They are not always in such a broad state. But I think they spend a lot more time in this state. This is more in line with their natural state than that of adults.

ezra small

For children, do you think that playing or imaginative play should be understood as a form of awareness, a state?

alison gopnik

Yeah, that's a really good question. So there is really some kind of coherent whole about what childhood is all about. So when you think about these creatures to be explored from this broad evolutionary perspective, I think there are a whole host of other things that go with it. One thing that goes with it is this broad awareness. But another thing that comes with it is the activity of the game. And when you think of game, the definition of game is that that's what you do when you are not working. Now it is not so much a form of experience and awareness, but a form of activity. It is a way of actually doing things, but one that has the quality of not being immediately directed towards a goal. For example, if you look very characteristically over animals, it is the young animals that play over an incredibly wide range of different animal species. Sometimes when they are mice they play fights. And when they're crows, play with twigs and figure out how to use the twigs. So what goes on in the game is different. But it's really fascinating that it's the young animals that play. And all the theories we have about the game are a different form of that kind of exploration. So it is another way of exploring this state of being in the world. Now it's not so much about visually absorbing all of the information around you as you do while exploring. Now it's more like actually doing things in the world to explore the space of possibility. Another thing that people point out when playing is playing is fun. There is a certain kind of happiness and joy associated with being in this state when you are just playing. Again, it's not the state kids are in all the time. But it's the state they are in often and a state they are in when they actually play. One of the really fascinating things that goes into A.I. Now – and I've spent a lot of time working with people in computer science at Berkeley who are trying to make better artificial intelligence systems – the current systems we have, I mean, the languages ​​we're supposed to optimize, them are really exploiting systems. What you do with these systems is to say this is your goal. You go out there and maximize that goal. And it turns out that when you have a system like this, it's very good at doing the things it's optimized for, but not very good at being resilient, not very good at changing, when things are different right? For example, I was very impressed with working with people in robotics. When people say the robots have problems generalizing, it doesn't mean they have problems generalizing, from driving a Tesla to driving a Lexus. You mean you have trouble putting the pad here and putting it an inch to the left, right? I mean, they really have trouble generalizing, even if they are very good. And it turns out that when these systems have a period of play where they can just create things in wilder ways or get them to train on human play, they end up being much more resilient. They are much better at generalizing, which is, of course, the great thing that kids are really good at, too.

ezra small

I was thinking about it, like you said a moment ago, gambling is what you do when you are not working. And I thought it's absolutely not what I do when I'm not working. I'm like you all the time, sit here, I'm like, don't work. And that doesn't play. In fact, I think I've lost a lot of my ability to play. I've trained myself to be productive so often that it can be difficult to put it down at times. And it takes real, dedicated effort not to do things that feel like work to me. What is lost in the process? Because I think there is cultural pressures not to play, but I think that your research and some of the others suggest that we made a terrible mistake in no longer paying tribute to the game.

alison gopnik

Yes, I think there is a lot of evidence for that. And it's interesting that, like I said before, the die-hard engineers who try to do things like design robots are increasingly realizing that gaming is something that you can actually use to get systems that get through the world better. Part of the problem – and this is a general exploration or exploitation problem. Part of the problem with gambling is that once you think about the long-term benefits it will have. And when you set a specific goal for yourself, when you say, well, when you play more, you are more resilient or resilient. And you say, OK, so now I want to shape you to do this special thing well. Then you will always do better just optimizing for that particular thing than by playing. What gaming is really about is that ability to change, to be resilient in the face of many different environments and in the face of many different possibilities. It's about dealing with something new or unexpected. And it's interesting that you're looking at studies of the effects of preschool on later development in children when you're looking at what might seem like a really different literature. When you first started doing these studies looking at the effects of an enriching preschool – and these were game-based preschools – preschools are to some extent still and should and certainly should be in the past. Basically, you are bringing a child into a rich environment that has plenty of opportunities to play. And it turned out that the effects kind of fade after a few years if you look at how well you did on a standardized test. And that was an argument against early education. But it turns out that if you look 30 years later, you have those sleeper effects that those playing kids don't necessarily get better grades on three years later. But they don't go to jail. Your health is better. Their salaries are higher. And what suggests is that having a lot of experience with the game has made you better at tackling unexpected challenges rather than getting a specific result. And it makes it really difficult if you want to have evidence-based policy, which is what we all want to do. And –

ezra small

That's optimistic.

alison gopnik

Well, or at least what some people want to do. Any type of metric you said almost by definition, when it comes to the metric, you will do better if you teach the test. So there is always the temptation to do so, even when the perks that gaming gives you seem to be those perks of ruggedness and resilience. For example, if you look at rats and rats that are allowed to play in the fight against rats, it's not that the rats that are playing can do things the rats cannot play, like any particular fighting technique the rats will have. But when you look at their subtlety in terms of their ability to deal with context, in terms of their ability to decide when to do this versus how to deal with the entire ensemble that I'm in, then the game has its great advantages.

ezra small

Do you play?

alison gopnik

Well, I was going to say when you said you don't play, you read science fiction, right? And you watch the Marvel Comics universe movies.

ezra small

I do that.

alison gopnik

Und ich denke, für Erwachsene ist das wirklich das Äquivalent zu der Art von – vor allem der Art von Rollenspiel und fantasievollem Spiel, die man bei Kindern sieht. Und diese beiden Dinge sind sehr parallel. Es gibt sogar eine schöne Studie von Marjorie Taylor, die viel von diesem einfallsreichen Stück studiert hat. Wenn Sie beispielsweise mit Menschen sprechen, die erwachsene Schriftsteller sind, sagen sie Ihnen, dass sie sich an ihre imaginären Freunde aus ihrer Kindheit erinnern. Jeder hat imaginäre Freunde. Aber es ist so, als würden sie sie in ihrer Rolodex behalten. Sie bleiben mit ihren imaginären Freunden in Kontakt. Und ich denke, für Erwachsene war ein Großteil der Funktion, die immer etwas mysteriös war – wie, warum das Lesen über etwas, das nicht passiert ist, Ihnen hilft, Dinge zu verstehen, die passiert sind, oder warum es im Allgemeinen gut wäre – Ich denke, für Erwachsene ist viel von dieser Art von Aktivität gleichbedeutend mit Spiel. Und ich mache das nicht so oft, wie ich es gerne hätte oder so viel wie vor 20 Jahren, was mich ein wenig darüber nachdenken lässt, wie sich die Gesellschaft verändert hat. Aber ich denke, das zählt als Spiel für Erwachsene. Und natürlich haben Sie das beste Spiel, das es geben kann. Wenn Sie einen Zweijährigen, einen Dreijährigen oder einen Vierjährigen haben, zwingen sie Sie dazu Sei in diesem Zustand, egal ob du anfangen willst oder nicht.

ezra klein

Ja, da ist definitiv etwas dran. Ich musste jetzt viel mehr Zeit damit verbringen, über Gurkenwagen nachzudenken. [MUSIK SPIELEN]

Eines der Argumente, die Sie im gesamten Buch vorbringen, ist, dass Kinder eine Rolle auf Bevölkerungsebene spielen, oder? Wir sprechen hier darüber, wie ein Kind erwachsen wird, wie es lernt, wie es so spielt, dass es später nicht ins Gefängnis kommt. Aber Sie sagen sozusagen, dass Kinder der F & E-Flügel unserer Spezies sind und dass wir uns im Laufe der Generationen auf eine Weise verändern und uns an Dinge anpassen, die der normale genetische Weg der Evolution nicht unbedingt vorhersagen würde. Und wir machen es teilweise durch Kinder. Könnten Sie ein wenig darüber sprechen, was diese Art von Plastizität im Maßstab bewirkt?

alison gopnik

Ja, ich denke, das ist eine gute Frage. Und wir wissen nicht genau, wie die Antwort lautet. Aber auch hier ist die Art der Grundlinie, dass Menschen diese wirklich, wirklich lange Zeit der Unreife haben. Wir haben also mehr verschiedene Leute, die sich um Kinder kümmern. Und das alles sieht so aus, als wäre es sehr evolutionär teuer. Es stellt sich also die Frage, warum dies so ist. Jetzt könnte es natürlich nur ein Epiphänomen sein. But it seems to be a really general pattern across so many different species at so many different times. So what kind of function could that serve? Well, if you think about human beings, we’re being faced with unexpected environments all the time. One way you could think about it is, our ecological niche is the unknown unknowns. That’s really what we’re adapted to, are the unknown unknowns. That’s what we’re all about. And of course, once we develop a culture, that just gets to be more true because each generation is going to change its environment in various ways that affect its culture. And that means that now, the next generation is going to have yet another new thing to try to deal with and to understand. So I think more and more, especially in the cultural context, that having a new generation that can look around at everything around it and say, let me try to make sense out of this, or let me understand this and let me think of all the new things that I could do, given this new environment, which is the thing that children, and I think not just infants and babies, but up through adolescence, that children are doing, that could be a real advantage. And then once you’ve done that kind of exploration of the space of possibilities, then as an adult now in that environment, you can decide which of those things you want to have happen.

ezra klein

Does this help explain why revolutionary political ideas are so much more appealing to sort of teens and 20 somethings and then why so much revolutionary political action comes from those age groups, comes from students? It’s partially this ability to exist within the imaginarium and have a little bit more of a porous border between what exists and what could than you have when you’re 50.

alison gopnik

So we actually did some really interesting experiments where we were looking at how these kinds of flexibility develop over the space of development. And one of the things that we discovered was that if you look at your understanding of the physical world, the preschoolers are the most flexible, and then they get less flexible at school age and then less so with adolescence. But if you look at the social world, there’s really this burst of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And the neuroscience suggests that, too. So if you look at the social parts of the brain, you see this kind of rebirth of plasticity and flexibility in adolescence. And I think that that’s exactly what you were saying, exactly what that’s for, is that it gives the adolescents a chance to consider new kinds of social possibilities, and to take the information that they got from the people around them and say, OK, given that that’s true, what’s something new that we could do? What’s something different from what we’ve done before? And if you look at the literature about cultural evolution, I think it’s true that culture is one of the really distinctive human capacities. There’s this constant tension between imitation and innovation. So to have a culture, one thing you need to do is to have a generation that comes in and can take advantage of all the other things that the previous generations have learned. But of course, what you also want is for that new generation to be able to modify and tweak and change and alter the things that the previous generation has done. And I think the period of childhood and adolescence in particular gives you a chance to be that kind of cutting edge of change. And empirically, what you see is that very often for things like music or clothing or culture or politics or social change, you see that the adolescents are on the edge, for better or for worse. And again, there’s this kind of tradeoff tension between all us cranky, old people saying, what’s wrong with kids nowadays? Because there’s a reason why the previous generation is doing the things that they’re doing and the sense of, here’s this great range of possibilities that we haven’t considered before.

ezra klein

What does this somewhat deeper understanding of the child’s brain imply for caregivers? What does taking more seriously what these states of consciousness are like say about how you should act as a parent and uncle and aunt, a grandparent?

alison gopnik

Well, I think here’s the wrong message to take, first of all, which I think is often the message that gets taken from this kind of information, especially in our time and our place and among people in our culture. The wrong message is, oh, OK, they’re doing all this learning, so we better start teaching them really, really early. We better make sure that all this learning is going to be shaped in the way that we want it to be shaped. And we better make sure that we’re doing the right things, and we’re buying the right apps, and we’re reading the right books, and we’re doing the right things to shape that kind of learning in the way that we, as adults, think that it should be shaped. And that’s not the right thing. That’s actually working against the very function of this early period of exploration and learning. But I do think something that’s important is that the very mundane investment that we make as caregivers, keeping the kids alive, figuring out what it is that they want or need at any moment, those things that are often very time consuming and require a lot of work, it’s that context of being secure and having resources and not having to worry about the immediate circumstances that you’re in. That context that caregivers provide, that’s absolutely crucial. It’s absolutely essential for that broad-based learning and understanding to happen. So just by doing — just by being a caregiver, just by caring, what you’re doing is providing the context in which this kind of exploration can take place. And we’re pretty well designed to think it’s good to care for children in the first place. But I think especially for sort of self-reflective parents, the fact that part of what you’re doing is allowing that to happen is really important. And then the other thing is that I think being with children in that way is a great way for adults to get a sense of what it would be like to have that broader focus. So, going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake. You go to the corner to get milk, and part of what we can even show from the neuroscience is that as adults, when you do something really often, you become habituated. You do the same thing over and over again. It kind of disappears from your consciousness. You’re not doing it with much experience. And again, that’s a lot of the times, that’s a good thing because there’s other things that we have to do. But if you do the same walk with a two-year-old, you realize, wait a minute. This, three blocks, it’s just amazing. It’s so rich. There’s dogs and there’s gates and there’s pizza fliers and there’s plants and trees and there’s airplanes. I’m sure you’ve seen this with your two-year-old with this phenomenon of some plane, plane, plane.

ezra klein

Oh, man.

alison gopnik

And then you suddenly realize —

ezra klein

Airplanes.

alison gopnik

Oh, wait a minute.

ezra klein

He’s like a radar.

alison gopnik

I didn’t know that there was an airplane there. But now that you point it out, sure enough there is one there. So I think the other thing is that being with children can give adults a sense of this broader way of being in the world. So I think both of you can appreciate the fact that caring for children is this fundamental foundational important thing that is allowing exploration and learning to take place, rather than thinking that that’s just kind of the scut work and what you really need to do is go out and do explicit teaching. That’s a way of appreciating it. And I think having this kind of empathic relationship to the children who are exploring so much is another.

ezra klein

What should having more respect for the child’s mind change not for how we care for children, but how we care for ourselves or what kinds of things we open ourselves into? If I want to make my mind a little bit more childlike, aside from trying to appreciate the William Blake-like nature of children, are there things of the child’s life that I should be trying to bring into mind?

alison gopnik

Well, we know something about the sort of functions that this child-like brain serves. So one thing is being able to deal with a lot of new information. And if you think about something like traveling to a new place, that’s a good example for adults, where just being someplace that you haven’t been before. Or another example is just trying to learn a skill that you haven’t learned before. Even if you’re not very good at it, someone once said that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Just trying to do something that’s different from the things that you’ve done before, just that can itself put you into a state that’s more like the childlike state. And again, there’s tradeoffs because, of course, we get to be good at doing things, and then we want to do the things that we’re good at. But setting up a new place, a new technique, a new relationship to the world, that’s something that seems to help to put you in this childlike state. And to go back to the parenting point, socially putting people in a state where they feel as if they’ve got a lot of resources, and they’re not under immediate pressure to produce a particular outcome, that seems to be something that helps people to be in this — helps even adults to be in this more playful exploratory state.

ezra klein

What do you think about the twin studies that people used to suggest parenting doesn’t really matter? Do you buy that evidence, or do you think it’s off?

alison gopnik

I think it’s off, but I think it’s often in a way that’s actually kind of interesting. So what I’ve argued is that you’d think that what having children does is introduce more variability into the world, right? So it actually introduces more options, more outcomes. Each of the children comes out differently. You get this different combination of genetics and environment and temperament. And each one of them is going to come out to be really different from anything you would expect beforehand, which is something that I think anybody who has had more than one child is very conscious of. But if you think that part of the function of childhood is to introduce that kind of variability into the world and that being a good caregiver has the effect of allowing children to come out in all these different ways, then the basic methodology of the twin studies is to assume that if parenting has an effect, it’s going to have an effect by the child being more like the parent and by, say, the three children that are the children of the same parent being more like each other than, say, the twins who are adopted by different parents. That’s the kind of basic rationale behind the studies. But if you think that what being a parent does is not make children more like themselves and more like you, but actually make them more different from each other and different from you, then when you do a twin study, you’re not going to see that. And, in fact, one of the things that I think people have been quite puzzled about in twin studies is this idea of the non-shared environment. So it turns out that you look at genetics, and that’s responsible for some of the variance. And you look at parental environment, and that’s responsible for some of it. But a lot of it is just all this other stuff, right? And no one quite knows where all that variability is coming from. But if you think that actually having all that variability is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing — it’s what you want — it’s what childhood and parenting is all about — then having that kind of variation that you can’t really explain either by genetics or by what the parents do, that’s exactly what being a parent, being a caregiver is all about, is for. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So you just heard earlier in the conversation they began doing a lot of work around A.I. And I find the direction you’re coming into this from really interesting that there’s this idea we just create A.I., and now there’s increasingly conversation over the possibility that we will need to parent A.I. Tell me a little bit about those collaborations and the angle you’re taking on this.

alison gopnik

So I’ve been collaborating with a whole group of people. It’s been incredibly fun at the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Group. And what we’ve been trying to do is to try and see what would you have to do to design an A.I. system that was as smart as a two-year-old basically, right? That could do the kinds of things that two-year-olds can do. And it’s kind of striking that the very best state of the art systems that we have that are great at playing Go and playing chess and maybe even driving in some circumstances, are terrible at doing the kinds of things that every two-year-old can do. And the idea is maybe we could look at some of the things that the two-year-olds do when they’re learning and see if that makes a difference to what the A.I.‘s are doing when they’re learning. So one way that I think about it sometimes is it’s sort of like if you look at the current models for A.I., it’s like we’re giving these A.I.‘s hyper helicopter tiger moms. There’s a programmer who’s hovering over the A.I. and saying, oh, yeah, yeah, you got that one right. That one’s a cat. That one’s a dog. That one’s another cat. That one’s another dog. Or you have the A.I. that’s saying, oh, good, your Go score just went up, so do what you’re doing there. But nope, now you lost that game, so figure out something else to do. And as you might expect, what you end up with is A.I. systems that are very, very good at doing the things that they were trained to do and not very good at all at doing something different. So they can play chess, but if you turn to a child and said, OK, we’re just going to change the rules now so that instead of the knight moving this way, it moves another way, they’d be able to figure out how to adopt what they’re doing. And it’s much harder for A.I. systems to do that. Now, one of the big problems that we have in A.I. is what’s come to be called the alignment problem, is how can you get the A.I. values to be aligned with the values of humans? So the famous example of this is the paperclip apocalypse, where you try to train the robot to make paper clips. And it just goes around and turns everything in the world, including all the humans and all the houses and everything else, into paper clips. If you’ve got this kind of strategy of, here’s the goal, try to accomplish the goal as best as you possibly can, then it’s really kind of worrying about what the goal is, what the values are that you’re giving these A.I. systems. And one idea people have had is, well, are there ways that we can make sure that those values are human values? But of course, one of the things that’s so fascinating about humans is we keep changing our objective functions. What counted as being the good thing, the value 10 years ago might be really different from the thing that we think is important or valuable now. We keep discovering that the things that we thought were the right things to do are not the right things to do. And we change what we do as a result. And it seems as if parents are playing a really deep role in that ability. So if you think about what it’s like to be a caregiver, it involves passing on your values. That’s a really deep part of it. But it also involves allowing the next generation to take those values, look at them in the context of the environment they find themselves in now, reshape them, rethink them, do all the things that we were mentioning that teenagers do — consider different kinds of alternatives. And it’s having a previous generation that’s willing to do both those things. It’s willing to both pass on tradition and tolerate, in fact, even encourage, change, that’s willing to say, here’s my values. But your job is to figure out your own values. That’s what lets humans keep altering their values and goals, and most of the time, for good. So the question is, if we really wanted to have A.I.‘s that were really autonomous — and maybe we don’t want to have A.I.‘s that are really autonomous. But if we wanted to have A.I.‘s that had those kinds of capacities, they’d need to have grandmoms. They’d need to have someone who would tell them, here’s what our human values are, and here’s enough possibilities so that you could decide what your values are and then hope that those values actually turn out to be the right ones.

ezra klein

Something that strikes me about this conversation is exactly what you are touching on, this idea that you can have one objective function. The A.I. will have one goal, and that will never change. You look at any kid, right? And I think it’s called social reference learning. I mean, they’re constantly doing something, and then they look back at their parents to see if their parent is smiling or frowning. Then they do something else and they look back. And this constant touching back, I don’t think I appreciated what a big part of development it was until I was a parent. And I just saw how constant it is, just all day, doing something, touching back, doing something, touching back, like 100 times in an hour. And it seems like that would be one way to work through that alignment problem, to just assume that the learning is going to be social. It’s not just going to be a goal function, it’s going to be a conversation.

alison gopnik

A.I. people love acronyms, it turns out. So the acronym we have for our project is MESS, which stands for Model-Building Exploratory Social Learning Systems. So one piece that we think is really important is this exploration, this ability to go out and find out things about the world, do experiments, be curious. One of the things that we’re doing right now is using some of these kind of video game environments to put A.I. agents and children literally in the same environment. So the A.I. is trying to work through a maze in unity, and the kids are working through the maze in unity. And we can compare what it is that the kids and the A.I.‘s do in that same environment. So one thing is to get them to explore, but another thing is to get them to do this kind of social learning. So look at a person who’s next to you and figure out what it is that they’re doing. And in robotics, for example, there’s a lot of attempts to use this kind of imitative learning to train robots. But here’s the catch, and the catch is that innovation-imitation trade-off that I mentioned. And in empirical work that we’ve done, we’ve shown that when you look at kids imitating, it’s really fascinating because even three-year-olds will imitate the details of what someone else is doing, but they’ll integrate, OK, I saw you do this. I saw this other person do something a little different. I have some information about how this machine works, for example, myself. And the children will put all those together to design the next thing that would be the right thing to do. So they’re constantly social referencing. They imitate literally from the moment that they’re born. They’re imitating us. They’re paying attention to us. They’re seeing what we do. But then they’re taking that information and integrating it with all the other information they have, say, from their own exploration and putting that together to try to design a new way of being, to try and do something that’s different from all the things that anyone has done before.

ezra klein

So the meta message of this conversation of what I took from your book is that learning a lot about a child’s brain actually throws a totally different light on the adult brain. As you’ve been learning so much about the effort to create A.I., has it made you think about the human brain differently?

alison gopnik

Well, I have to say actually being involved in the A.I. project, in many ways, makes the differences more salient than the similarities. Because over and over again, something that is so simple, say, for young children that we just take it for granted, like the fact that when you go into a new maze, you explore it, that turns out to be really hard to figure out how to do with an A.I. system. Or to take the example about the robot imitators, this is a really lovely project that we’re working on with some people from Google Brain. They thought, OK, well, a good way to get a robot to learn how to do things is to imitate what a human is doing. So what they did was have humans who were, say, manipulating a bunch of — putting things on a desk in a virtual environment. And the robot is sitting there and watching what the human does when they take up the pen and put it in the drawer in the virtual environment. And it turned out that the problem was if you train the robot that way, then they learn how to do exactly the same thing that the human did. But as I say — and this is always sort of amazing to me — you put the pen 5 centimeters to one side, and now they have no idea what to do. But it turns out that if instead of that, what you do is you have the human just play with the things on the desk. You tell the human, I just want you to do stuff with the things that are here. Just play with them. Just do the things that you think are interesting or fun. And then you use that to train the robots. The robots are much more resilient. So part of it kind of goes in circles. So it’s also for the children imitating the more playful things that the adults are doing, or at least, for robots, that’s helping the robots to be more effective. I think anyone who’s worked with human brains and then goes to try to do A.I., the gulf is really pretty striking. And the difference between just the things that we take for granted that, say, children are doing and the things that even the very best, most impressive A.I. systems can do is really striking. Now here’s a specific thing that I’m puzzled about that I think we’ve learned from looking at the A.I. example. In A.I., you sort of have a choice often between just doing the thing that’s the obvious thing that you’ve been trained to do or just doing something that’s kind of random and noisy. Those are sort of the options. The amazing thing about kids is that they do things that are unexpected. They’re not just doing the obvious thing, but they’re not just behaving completely randomly. And I think it’s a really interesting question about how do you search through a space of possibilities, for example, where you’re searching and looking around widely enough so that you can get to something that’s genuinely new, but you aren’t just doing something that’s completely random and noisy. I’ve been thinking about the old program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” if you just think about the things that kids say, collect them. A lovely example that one of my computer science postdocs gave the other day was that her three-year-old was walking on the campus and saw the Campanile at Berkeley. So the Campanile is the big clock tower at Berkeley. And he looked up at the clock tower, and he said, there’s a clock at the top there. There’s a clock way, way up high at the top of that tower. And then he said, I guess they want to make sure that the children and the students don’t break the clock. So they put it really, really high up.

ezra klein

It’s very funny.

alison gopnik

And that’s exactly the example of the sort of things that children do. It’s not something he’s ever heard anybody else say. It kind of makes sense. It’s not random. But of course, it’s not something that any grown-up would say. In a sense, it’s a really creative solution. And I think that for A.I., the challenge is, how could we get a system that’s capable of doing something that’s really new, which is what you want if you want robustness and resilience, and isn’t just random, but is new, but appropriately new.

ezra klein

I always wonder if the A.I., two-year-old, three-year-old comparisons are just a category error there, in the sense that you might say a small bat can do something that no children can do, which is it can fly. GPT 3, the open A.I. program, can do something that no two-year-old can do effortlessly, which is mimic the text of a certain kind of author. Is it just going to be the case that there are certain collaborations of our physical forms and molecular structures and so on that give our intelligence different categories? I always wonder if there’s almost a kind of comfort being taken at how hard it is to do two-year-old style things. And meanwhile, I don’t want to put too much weight on it’s beating everybody at Go, but that what it does seem plausible it could do in 10 years will be quite remarkable. Now, again, that’s different than the conscious agent, right, that has to make its way through the world on its own. I’m curious how much weight you put on the idea that that might just be the wrong comparison.

alison gopnik

This is the old point about asking whether an A.I. can think is like asking whether a submarine can swim, right? It feels like it’s just a category. It’s just a category error. And of course, as I say, we have two-year-olds around a lot, so we don’t really need any more two-year-olds. We should be designing these systems so they’re complementary to our intelligence, rather than somehow being a reproduction of our intelligence. But on the other hand, there are very — I mean, again, just take something really simple. Like, it would be really good to have robots that could pick things up and put them in boxes, right? That doesn’t seem like such a highfalutin skill to be able to have. And that could pick things up and put them in boxes and now when you gave it a screw that looked a little different from the previous screw and a box that looked a little different from the previous box, that they could figure out, oh, yeah, no, that one’s a screw, and it goes in the screw box, not the other box. And it turns out that even to do just these really, really simple things that we would really like to have artificial systems do, it’s really hard. And those are things that two-year-olds do really well. And we can think about what is it. On the other hand, the two-year-olds don’t get bored knowing how to put things in boxes. So what is it that they’ve got, what mechanisms do they have that could help us with some of these kinds of problems? And another example that we’ve been working on a lot with the Bay Area group is just vision. So just look at a screen with a lot of pixels, and make sense out of it. And as you probably know if you look at something like ImageNet, you can show, say, a deep learning system a whole lot of pictures of cats and dogs on the web, and eventually you’ll get it so that it can, most of the time, say this is the cat, and this is the dog. But then you can give it something that is just obviously not a cat or a dog, and they’ll make a mistake. And they won’t be able to generalize, even to say a dog on a video that’s actually moving. So even if you take something as simple as that you would like to have your systems actually — you’d like to have the computer in your car actually be able to identify this is a pedestrian or a car, it turns out that even those simple things involve abilities that we see in very young children that are actually quite hard to program into a computer. Some of the things that we’re looking at, for instance, is with children, when they’re learning to identify objects in the world, one thing they do is they pick them up and then they move around. Look at them from different angles, look at them from the top, look at them from the bottom, look at your hands this way, look at your hands that way. Walk around to the other side, pick things up and get into everything and make a terrible mess because you’re picking them up and throwing them around. But it turns out that may be just the kind of thing that you need to do, not to do anything fancy, just to have vision, just to be able to see the objects in the way that adults see the objects.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to come to a close. So, let me ask you a variation on what’s our final question. What are three children’s books you love and would recommend to the audience?

alison gopnik

Yeah, so I was thinking a lot about this, and I actually had converged on two children’s books. And then yesterday, I went to see my grandchildren for the first time in a year, my beloved grandchildren. And I was really pleased because my intuitions about the best books were completely confirmed by this great reunion with the grandchildren. So my five-year-old grandson, who hasn’t been in our house for a year, first said, I love you, grandmom, and then said, you know, grandmom, do you still have that book that you have at your house with the little boy who has this white suit, and he goes to the island with the monsters on it, and then he comes back again? And I said, you mean “Where the Wild Things Are“? And he said, that’s it, that’s the one with the wild things with the monsters. Do you still have that book? Could we read that book at your house? So I figure that’s a pretty serious endorsement when a five-year-old remembers something from a year ago. So that’s the first one, especially for the younger children. All of the Maurice Sendak books, but especially “Where the Wild Things Are” is a fantastic, wonderful book. And then for older children, that same day, my nine-year-old, who is very into the Marvel universe and superheroes, said, could we read a chapter from Mary Poppins, which is, again, something that grandmom reads. And we had a marvelous time reading Mary Poppins. And he said, the book is so much better than the movie. And he was absolutely right. And the reason is that when you actually read the Mary Poppins books, especially the later ones, like “Mary Poppins in the Park” and “Mary Poppins Opens the Door,” Mary Poppins is a much stranger, weirder, darker figure than Julie Andrews is. So if you’ve seen the movie, you have no idea what Mary Poppins is about. Essentially what Mary Poppins is about is this very strange, surreal set of adventures that the children are having with this figure, who, as I said to Augie, is much more like Iron Man or Batman or Doctor Strange than Julie Andrews, right? Who’s this powerful and mysterious, sometimes dark, but ultimately good, creature in your experience. So I keep thinking, oh, yeah, now what we really need to do is add Mary Poppins to the Marvel universe, and that would be a much better version. And let me give you a third book, which is much more obscure. There’s a book called “The Children of Green Knowe,” K-N-O-W-E. I like this because it’s a book about a grandmother and her grandson. And he comes to visit her in this strange, old house in the Cambridge countryside. And gradually, it gets to be clear that there are ghosts of the history of this house. And what I like about all three of these books, in their different ways, is that I think they capture this thing that’s so distinctive about childhood, the fact that on the one hand, you’re in this safe place. So with the Wild Things, he’s in his room, where mom is, where supper is going to be. And all the time, sitting in that room, he also adventures out in this boat to these strange places where wild things are, including he himself as a wild thing. And the same thing is true with Mary Poppins. So there are these children who are just leading this very ordinary British middle class life in the ‘30s. And they’re going to the greengrocer and the fishmonger. And yet, there’s all this strangeness, this weirdness, the surreal things just about those everyday experiences. And the same way with “The Children of Green Knowe.” You’re going to visit your grandmother in her house in the country. And then it turns out that that house is full of spirits and ghosts and traditions and things that you’ve learned from the past. All three of those books really capture what’s special about childhood. It’s that combination of a small, safe world, and it’s actually having that small, safe world that lets you explore much wilder, crazier stranger set of worlds than any grown-up ever gets to.

ezra klein

Alison Gopnik, thank you very much.

alison gopnik

Thank you, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Thank you to Alison Gopnik for being here. I’m going to keep it up with these little occasional recommendations after the show. I’m a writing nerd. I mean, obviously, I’m a writer, but I like writing software. When I went to Vox Media, partially I did that because of their great CMS or publishing software Chorus. And I’m always looking for really good clean composition apps. I find Word and Pages and Google Docs to be just horrible to write in. And having a good space to write in, it actually helps me think. But I found something recently that I like. And I’m not getting paid to promote them or anything, I just like it. It’s called Calmly Writer. You could just find it at calmywriter.com. And it’s the cleanest writing interface, simplest of these programs I found. So if you’re looking for a real lightweight, easy place to do some writing, Calmly Writer. But I’d be interested to hear what you all like because I’ve become a little bit of a nerd about these apps. That’s it for the show. Thank you for listening. As always, if you want to help the show out, leave us a review wherever you are listening to it now. Or send this episode to a friend, a family member, somebody you want to talk about it with. It really does help the show grow. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checked by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; and mixing by Jeff Geld. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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