Learn Lab China Community Sharing (Beijing, 20 December 2015)

My relationship with computing is rather like kindling an old romance, and that with education is rather than a fling that turned into a lot more. Education and books have always been a huge part of my life because quite literally they open my mind. But I’ve never entertained the idea of teaching one bit because I’m like, I enjoy solving problems, and then you realise: actually we are the problem – either because we do not care or that we do not have enough information – and in an age of information abundance, more often than not the former poses the bigger challenge.

My personal hypothesis is thus: the greatest challenge of our times is creating empathy at scale. Coding is important, for now – like a new language – as a basic literacy and the greatest wealth-creation engine mankind has ever seen since the dawn of us – but far more important than that is the ability to grasp and synthesise ideas from diverse fields, to model the world as you know it, and so forth; it has been never more important to be able to fully exploit the “advantages” of being human as machines run rampant.

I like to reflect on what has happened in my own life and how have those experiences shaped my perspectives so in preparation for the sharing session in Beijing last December I had distilled 3 key memories. When it comes to education and technology, there was the vivid memory of a secondary school Chinese teacher saying “never write about dreams!” In fact all language teachers used to ask us to NOT write about dreams, understandably. Yet looking back it was that emphasis on grades and writing a certain way that doth killed my love for the Chinese language by not just a little. I mean, I want to be melodramatic when I want to, alright? Hence I do agree to a large extent that our mainstream education system has a curious way of educating the curiosity out of us. This is most unfortunate as lifelong learning becomes a reality.

Another incident was buying a watermelon for less than what must have been $1 SGD at 9pm-ish in Nanxijiang only to realise from the vehicle license number that the seller had travelled at least 1000km to very incidentally quench of my thirst… Just wow. Imagine how much her life’d improve, in absolute terms, when she has easier access to information about market prices or when she is able to sell to a lot more people all at once thanks to a dramatic reduction in transaction costs.

The third thing that makes me so insistent about the place of code as a basic building block is the amount of automation that is going on. As manufacturing gets more done with lesser humans, we must be able to speak the language of the machines to collaborate effectively with them.

Yet our analog foundations in education is failing to maximise digital dividends for every child.

This is because of the fact that the two functions served by education, namely sorting and empowering, can be antagonistic to each other. Genius is randomly distributed, but opportunities follow a power law. Correlations cascade into outcomes of increasing inequality. This is why the Code for Asia Society exists. :)

And here’s a report of the event in Mandarin.

— Ernie

RoboCup Junior World Invitational Trip (Shenzhen-Liuzhou-Guangzhou 25-29 November 2015)

IMG_6931

Ernie, Gray and Shubham went on a trip. Thanks so much to the Liuzhou Science and Technology Museum for organising this and RoboCup Junior China for inviting us! Very interesting to know that the first Chinese city I had landed on, ever, on my first trip to the mainland is also an industrial powerhouse.

IMG_6657

It was plenty of fun checking out the Qianhai Special Economic Zone (They have apartments for entrepreneurs to move into! Now that’s what I call encouraging entrepreneurship…), they certainly got land though the location leaves much to be desired… It took us half an hour to Uber out of the place. Half. An. Hour!

IMG_6802

At least the food is as awesome as always. And many places deliver straight to your hotel. I’ve yet to find any other country that does eggplant the way China does it. And food portions are always so big.

IMG_6707

IMG_6709

IMG_6711

IMG_6880

IMG_6884

As on every trip to China, I would end up singing and dining with various local friends with the company I came with. China can be very collegiate and easy to mix around – there is a saying in Confucianism that goes along something like “to have friends coming in from afar, how delightful” – and our hosts certainly lived up to that. Though we did not take a train ride up to Yangshuo as planned (we were so tired and it was so cold), the competition organisers made it up for us by taking us on a river cruise of Liuzhou and we saw karst formations, as seen in the header photo.

Now let’s talk about work. 😀

IMG_6938

When it came time to do the work we went to China for, we did a group brainstorming session with 100 over students from the Liuzhou 12th Secondary School on “How to Build an Ironman in 30 Minutes” – and discovered to our delight that chocolates and Hollywood always work, even across borders.

IMG_6862

We ended the trip by visiting the local youth center and grabbing the local delight – Luosifen – by the train station.

We’ll be the first to sign up for this again.

Our special thanks to Auston Institute of Management, Mr. Girish Kumar and Temasek Primary School for letting us share about their Robotics experiences/stories!