photo credit: iStock.com/vandervelden
If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?
This question made the rounds on the Internet recently. It went viral in the US, where netizens, one after another, marveled at the fact that such a difficult question had been given to 5th grade students in China. Is this some kind of new Chinese math?
It took me a minute, but having spent nine years living and working in China I got the answer fairly quickly. My Chinese wife got it immediately. (As I knew she would.)
The answer? There isn’t one. Or, more accurately, there are many. There is no single answer.
And, no, this isn’t a joke. My wife didn’t even smile. She just answered the question and left the room, after reading the original Chinese and verifying for me that the translation was accurate.
This question is the perfect explanation for why the future of technology is likely to belong to the Chinese and not Silicon Valley. Or maybe not.
The reason this school gave this question to fifth-graders is that there is concern among Chinese educators that Chinese culture fails to instill students with enough curiosity. And curiosity, they believe, is critical to achievement in a technologically advanced world. When I ran a glass factory in China I had the same concern. They’re right, but they’re wrong.
Chinese culture is built on a very inductive worldview. Inductive logic moves from right to left, from observation to speculation. That is why Confucius said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and that makes all the sense in the world to the average Chinese fifth grader. (Ask your American fifth grader what Confucius meant.)
American culture, in contrast, is built on a deductive worldview. Deductive logic is the logic behind the scientific method and moves from left to right. For every cause there is an effect, and according to the laws of science it is the same every time. (In truth, it is not. Science is really about probabilities, not absolute truths.)
To put it in terms of the modern world, the machines in the glass plant I managed in China cost millions of dollars to build and were immensely complex. And when they broke down the Chinese mechanics at this plant could fix them in a fraction of the time that it took the mechanics at other plants around the world, including those in the US, to fix the exact same machine.
If you were to ask the Chinese mechanics what happened, however, they would surely respond: “The machine broke down.” And that drove our Western mechanics crazy. “Don’t they understand how important it is to understand why the machine broke down so that we can prevent it from happening again?” they would demand of me. The implication, of course, was, “What are you teaching them?” (BTW, this is where prejudice comes from, but that’s another topic.)
But the Chinese mechanics were, in fact, teaching me. “They don’t care why it broke down because while they were working to get it running again a different machine broke down and they felt it was a better use of their time to go fix the second machine than to waste a lot of time trying to answer a question that may have no answer or which more than likely has an answer the knowledge of which will do nothing to prevent it from happening in the future.”
American companies are infatuated with process because of their deductive worldview. And process can be a very good thing. It can also lead to excessive bureaucracy, a lot of extra costs, and terrible customer service. Process isn’t bad per so, but it can be.
So, too, can a lack of curiosity. Which is exactly what the Chinese educators were getting at with their question. They just wanted their fifth-graders to think about it. Instead of immediately assuming there is no answer, as older Chinese like my wife would be inclined to do, they wanted the students to wonder if there, in fact, might be a knowable answer.
So which way is better? Neither, of course. As in all things in life and the universe the truth is not binary. Real knowledge lies in the balance between the two extremes. In Silicon Valley they refer to these digital options as 0 and 1 (on and off). In China they refer to the same duality as yin and yang.
If you saw this question on the Internet you probably saw it referred to as a math problem. But it’s not. In fact, the Chinese character for math appears nowhere on the original document provided to the fifth graders. It is only we Americans who feel obligated to define it as a certain type of problem. And suggesting it is a math problem, of course, further reinforces the false assumption that there must be a solution.
To date, Silicon Valley has won the technology race, in large part, because a bunch of college dropouts were incredibly curious. And they quickly figured out that the 0’s and 1’s at the heart of the new technology is all about patterns. That’s what computer coding is, and Americans (and more than a few Chinese) proved very good at working with such binary patterns.
No one, however, will ever be better at working with patterns than the machines built from them. They are, after all, bigger and faster when it comes to patterns. It’s not in their DNA; it is their DNA. And, of course, as a result it is virtually inevitable that smart machines will soon program themselves. (They already are.) Being a computer coder will be about as valuable as being an expert blacksmith.
The economic race will then become not a coding challenge, but a race to tell them what to do, and, very importantly, to make sure they don’t do evil things; because, of course, neither a 0 nor a 1 knows what good and evil are.
Of course, curiosity will be a very valuable thing indeed in this digital world. What can I do with this technology? What is that machine basing its answers on? Does this make sense? Or is this machine acquiring a racist perspective?
Curiosity, however, will only have value until it doesn’t. And the inevitable truth is that sometimes it will and sometimes it won’t. To even understand the problem and the opportunity, in other words, people will have to think holistically. They can’t think in the simple terms of left to right or right to left.
Right now the Chinese have the edge in training their students for that day. Chinese educators fully recognize that the student of the future needs to be both inductive and deductive. They must think bi-directionally.
Some American educators, I have to believe, understand the same thing. Their challenge is the same one, although it comes at the problem from the opposite direction.
The problem is that most American business, and virtually all American politicians, don’t recognize that a problem even exists. To them it’s all about their very simple and one-dimensional perspective on truth.
Think about it.
And while you’re thinking about it, consider reading my latest book: We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America. It’s now available on Amazon.
It’s a book about the age of the captain on a ship holding 26 sheep and 10 goats. Or is it 26 goats and 10 sheep? Or two captains, perhaps, one of whom happen to be ______.
I guarantee my book will be worth your time. And if you agree, I would greatly appreciate it if you take the time to post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or whatever book site you enjoy. (It’s a binary world, after all. Authors, like everyone else, live by their clicks—whether they’re sheep or goats.)
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