By Ben Falik



Image by Ben Falik

Last month, engineers at Columbia University created a robot that “learns what it is, from scratch, with zero prior knowledge of physics, geometry or motor dynamics … does not know if it is a spider, a snake, an arm — it has no clue what its shape is … and within about a day of intensive computing, their robot creates a self-simulation.”

To boot, “The robot can then use that self-simulator internally to contemplate and adapt to different situations, handling new tasks as well as detecting and repairing damage in its own body.”

But when Columbia prompted it to “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others,” the robot tried to rock–paper–scissors itself off the table.

I know the feeling. I’m 15 years removed from both my college graduation and — bot-willing — my children’s. Whatever the combination of hindsight and lead time that affords me, higher ed remains a bundle of contradictions: motivation and anxiety, debt and earning potential, social mobility and elitism, progress and inertia.

Once a year, I get a crash course in contemporary college applications and admissions. I take up residence in a Cranbrook Kingswood classroom for a marathon day of local Columbia alumni interviews. The high school seniors tend to be only slightly more dressed up and nervous than I.

This year, they are from Cameroon, Midland, Macedonia, Okemos, Tulsa, Beijing and Iraq. They help out on the family farm. They interview Walmart shoppers from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. They speak the mother tongue at home and visit extended family in their ancestral homeland or Chinatown.

They teach themselves enough German to sing the Queen’s aria from The Magic Flute. They play whichever of a half-dozen instruments the jazz ensemble needs that day. They work at the British Chamber of Commerce in Denmark and TJ Maxx (same person). They change hospital bedding and observe laparoscopic surgery.

They sometimes believe me when I tell them that what school they attend doesn’t really matter. Or, as Frank Bruni puts it, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.” That how you bring yourself to new spaces — showing up, reaching out, sticking around — will serve you far beyond test scores, school rankings and acceptance rates.

And it can be hard to tell from websites and word of mouth. There are “rah rah” schools and, as I used to say on campus tours, “yeah yeah” schools.

Every institution I have ever encountered — whether higher ed, corporate, civic, social — evidences at times brilliance and mediocrity, inspiration and cynicism, authenticity and simulacra, compassion and indifference. U.S. News & World Report has about as much insight to offer as The Definitive College Ranking Of 16 Ramen Noodle Flavors.

Ben and Detroit teens visiting Columbia
Ben and Detroit teens visiting Columbia Ben Falik

The students I interview are highly human; they are also a little like Columbia’s robot. They are developing their self-image in real time through repeated trials, incorporating new parts along the way. Unlike the controlled environment of the engineering lab, they are surrounded by noise and subjected to competing commitments. Their knowledge of physics and geometry varies. Their ability to get a ball in a cup will likely improve over the course of college.

And their genuine love of learning (plus the arrival of a semi-sentient armbot) has inspired me to continue my education — to embrace the complexities of the world and stave off my own obsolescence.

So I re-enrolled at Columbia to take Machine Learning for Data Science and Analytics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

Not really. But I could have. Any of us can be a Columbia student, for free, through ColumbiaX, their massive open online courses (MOOCs).

I don’t want the robots to grow suspicious of me, especially after how they behaved in a spate of Super Bowl ads, so I am starting with Udemy, an online platform whose mission is to improve lives through learning. With more than 100,000 courses, no graduation requirements and a discount code, I was a kid in a curriculum store.

If you were wondering what a master’s degree in “Benology” looks like:
• Mind Mapping Mastery –> Effective Mind Maps
• LEARN HARMONICA, amaze your friends and have fun
• Master Rubik’s Cube in 4 days!
• History of the Middle East – 600 A.D. to Today
• Introduction to Accounting: The Language of Business
• How To Make Sushi With Sushi Express
• How to Make a Difference by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn
• How to Make a Liquid Soap Professionally
• The Board Game Making & Customization Guide

First up, Rubik’s Cube. Instantly recognizable totem of endearing ’80s nostalgia or crypto-chromo-cubic cognitive cypher of cross-coordinated columns and corners? Brain train or drain? Metaphor or paperweight?

Time to find out — no robo arms necessary.

Ben Falik