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Should we teach our kids how to program humanity out of existence?

It'd be logical

Something for the Weekend, Sir? "Kids tend to spend far too much of their childhood in an unproductive way," it says here.

I quite agree. It was the same when I was a child. All that counting numbers and spelling words they made me do over the years was a massive drain on my television-watching time.

"Research shows that children have an increasing problem with logical thinking," the blurb continues.

Ah, that explains why I have only a vague recollection of studies during my final two years at school. I have flashbacks that suggest I wasted lots of time revising stuff but not actually learning anything new at all.

Curiously, however, I can remember in detail everything I surreptitiously smoked in the sixth-form common room. Dried onion, banana skins, whatever came to hand and was cheaper to roll than tax-heavy tobacco.

In fact, I recall an occasion when a group of us were sitting around on the common room’s ancient lumpy sofas whose split upholstery was constantly spilling antique straw onto the floor – sorry, readers, it was that kind of school – having run out of our harmless fruit-and-veg legal highs and wondering what to roll next.

Someone suggested we try smoking the sofa’s straw stuffing. Try saying that aloud after five pints and you’ll appreciate our desperation.

To satisfy the curious among you, it was like inhaling smoke from a campfire built from a heap of ranky old straw that had been pulled out of 100-year-old furniture that had supported the arses of a half-century of incontinent old men followed by another 50 years of masturbatory teenagers.

I always thought it was odd that I couldn’t remember much else about sixth form. Oh, of course there was that fire that burnt down the common room, but otherwise nothing.

Thanks to the blurb I am reading today, I realise now that my education was at fault.

The source of this wisdom is a Kickstarter pitch for a toy robot that young children can program to do things. The Photon scuttles about dragging Lego trailers, following tracks, blinking lights, getting under your feet and generally being very annoying, which is why kids love it.

When the developers say that very young children will be able to “program” the robot, they mean kids will drag and drop coloured blocks of “code” around in a smartphone or tablet app. It’s based on concepts borrowed from MIT’s Scratch and Google’s Blockly, and rendered even more simply.

Is this really "programming" or just more smoke and mirrors to fool thicko grown-ups (who have been held back by their own terrible education) that purchasing a toy robot will help launch little Ahleeyah and Kanye into stratospheric careers in IT – that most generously paid and highly regarded of employment sectors?

After all, grown-ups lucky enough to wield the power to make a difference in the world have a track record in fuckwittery when it comes to science and computing. In the UK, for example, the government-backed Year of Code initiative in 2014 was led by a chief executive who had never coded so much as a "Hello World" alert.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect the head of a project promoting the teaching of coding skills in school to be bashing out C++ all day and idly doodling Python scripts during the morning commute.

After all, it is no more necessary for the boss of an educational IT initiative to be a programmer than it is for oncology experts to be themselves suffering from cancer or for a government health minister to be a brain surgeon.

It would certainly be challenging to recruit grave diggers if we insisted that all applicants had "a proven track record of being dead".

On the other hand, I would expect a politician in charge of a country’s finances to be able to count. Come to think of it, I also expect a London coffee shop barista who insists on writing your name on a paper cup ought to have at least a rudimentary command of how to transcribe vocal sounds into letters of the alphabet.

You see? It all comes down to early education.

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Photon hits at least one nail on the head: the most challenging thing about learning to program for the first time is not the language but the structure and logic.

Everyone who complains they can’t make head nor tail of coding doesn’t really have an issue with curly brackets and semicolons so much as the structure of constants, variables, operators, functions and so on. No end of lookup libraries will make a difference to someone who hasn’t the faintest idea what a routine is, let alone how to close it.

So using a gamified plastic robot strikes me as good a way as any to introduce youngsters to the principles of logic. Just be prepared for an argument over dinner as they challenge the logic of "You can’t have any cake until you’ve finished your liver and onions".

And that’s just the start. With educational devices like this teaching even preschoolers how to code, robotics should advance exponentially. Sci-fi fans should be thrilled that we are at last breeding the generation that will bring about our eventual robot overlords.

Or, looked at in another way, we are being programmed into programming our children to be programmers who will program our own extinction.

Ah well, that’s de-evolution for you. What we do is what we do.

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Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He doesn’t mind being wiped out as a result of The Singularity but he takes objection to robot overlords having bunny ears. It lacks dignity.

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