By Basant Pandey, Lumbini, Nepal
Alfred Spector: technology can enhance learning (Amy Sussman)
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” a concerned commentator once spoke of a new technology. “[People] will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
The commentator? Socrates, quoting an Egyptian king. And the technology? Writing.
Two thousand years later, the technology has changed but the dialogue remains the same. Facebook, smartphones, and video games are all supposedly bad for us: damaging our concentration, or leading to falling grades.
While there’s no doubt that information technology can have its downsides for our day-to-day behaviour, there is very little evidence that computers are damaging our brains – any more than writing made us more forgetful. In fact, computers might just make us a bit smarter.
This potential for technology to enhance the mind was explored by Google’s vice-president of research Alfred Spector at the World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York on 21 October. He outlined the ways that even simple apps could improve the way we think and learn. “Since I was a freshman in college, almost every piece of information technology is a million times better than when I started,” he said. “And there are reasons to believe that this will affect education.”
For some enthusiastic learners, the revolution has already started: the last few years have seen a rapid rise in apps that aim to help us effortlessly absorb new material. Duolingo – an app that teaches foreign languages through playful games – already has around 40 million users, while programs like Cerego and Memrise aim to teach more general subjects, based on a growing understanding of the way the brain learns and forgets information.
But these could just be the tip of the iceberg, said Spector – if the technology will follow three important principles. Firstly, he points to research showing that even average students can reach the top 2% of a class if they have a personal tutor that can adapt their teaching methods to the student’s style of thinking and learning. “If it were the case that technology could become custom tutors, then it’s possible to imagine enormous improvements in educational attainment,” said Spector.
In fact, Memrise and Cerego already use this strategy to a certain extent – by tracking patterns in the ways they remember and forget the information – but more sophisticated approaches may emerge with time. In other words, we may all be able to enjoy the advantages that were once only available to the richest children.
Spector also pointed out that designers have already mastered the way to create immersive, compelling environments – through video games – that could take the boredom out of studying. “We have user interfaces that are so exciting that people play video games for hours and hours a day, and they could be educated by them.” Besides adding interest, Daphne Bavelier at the University of Rochester, New York, says that by effortlessly focusing our attention, immersive environments can also improve” – the kind of memory that allows you to learn a musical instrument, or a foreign language, and which normally shuts down after childhood.
Finally, Spector says that social networks could be used to increase the interaction between students. “I learnt as much from fellow students as we do from the faculty,” he told the WCIS audience. Indeed, part of the popularity of apps like Memrise is the fact that users can share their experiences.
Spector readily admits that all of this might sound a bit pie-in-the-sky at the moment, and may only attract the more dedicated users, but the obvious enthusiasm with which people are devouring apps like Duolingo suggests there is a genuine interest. “It may be enough to get this started,” he says. He thinks much of the necessary technology is already there – it just needs to be packaged in a more attractive way.
If so, he believes it could fundamentally change our society – perhaps even abolishing the need for schools. “In the past it seemed you had to go to a school to get formal education – there was no choice but to go to isolated places to be educated, but now we don’t have to do that. We may choose to but we don’t have to.” Or perhaps universities will cut down the number of years you spend on campus – allowing you to finish your education with distance learning. And since it means that people aren’t all taught in one class – but offers a more personal approach – it may mean that future students can pick and choose the bits that are most appealing while avoiding the more tedious parts of their subject.
Despite his obvious enthusiasm, Spector recognises that there could be some unexpected downsides to this kind of effortless learning, should it ever be achieved. “How do we learn grit?” he asked the audience. “If everything is a computer game how do you learn to deal with that challenge that you spent all night trying to read Chaucer and write a summary of it?” For many, though, that is probably a small price to pay if the easier path to learning makes us all a bit smarter, and a bit more creative.
As another speaker at the conference, Alexis Ohanian – the founder of reddit – put it: “The internet has flattened the world… It allows us to learn anything that we want. A teenager with a smartphone has access to more knowledge than the president did a few decades ago.”
We were hoping this post would include details on our research trip to Belize during January. Unfortunately, a team member was in an accident, which caused us to postpone our trip until this spring. However, we do have some information to share on preparations to date and future plans.
Plenty of hours were spent preparing our equipment for the trip. Much of time was spent on completing the assembly of our “Game of Drones” build, affectionately known as Motley (see figure below).
I designed the dome/lid (white, seen in the middle of Motley) and had it printed on a 3D printer in our Center for Design and Fabrication. An idea from our friends at UAV-America suggests that we add a bit of plasti-dip to the dome edge and inner rim of the frame to secure the fitting, since the lid does not quite snap into place. All of the components were oriented and re-seated within this hardier frame. The newly-combined GPS receiver and magnetometer can now be mounted externally on the dome (note: the GPS/magnetometer are not shown in the above image). We are able to fit two LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries inside the cavity and we await warmer weather – or a trip to the indoor gymnasium – to test Motley’s flight characteristics.
We also invested additional time building our Aquacopter UAV (see picture below). The Aquacopter is a durable frame that, as the name implies, is specially built for water environments. The frame and components arrived in early December, not leaving much time to build or modify. With help from UAV-America and additional hours in our lab, we were to get the motors generating lift and the quad up in the air. However, we are still experiencing irregular flight characteristics, primarily with unpredictable and unresponsive yaw motion. The motors may be slightly pitched in their mounting, which would cause these issues.
Future plans include adding shims under the motors, performing test flights to find the cause of the problem (and therefore fix the yaw), and also determine if the Aquacopter can actually float. This would give it a significant edge over Motley in our data collection, because being able to retrieve the quad from a water landing is crucial.
We also spent time reading and understanding FAA regulations governing what types of batteries are allowed on commercial flights. Specifically, we reviewed the Delta Airlines baggage restrictions to understand what size and quantity LiPo batteries we can pack and transport in our carry on bags. As Christine writes:
I’ve looked at the restrictions on carrying on lithium batteries and the only restrictions I can find are that you can only have two batteries that are “large”, or between 8 and 25 grams of lithium and between 100 and 160 watt hours. None of our batteries are anywhere close to those restrictions, so according the guidelines you sent me we can take as many of our batteries as we want to. These can’t be damaged and must be put in their original packaging (or, if we don’t have that, then we just need to insulate the battery terminals from metal or other batteries). Also, we have to make sure that there won’t be a lot of pressure on the batteries at any time. All the batteries must be in carry on.
We are taking extra precautions to print and adhere to these regulations, and plan to adhere a print-out with an inventory of batteries stored in each battery safe bag to the outside of our carry-on luggage. Hopefully, this will save time and confusion as we proceed through the airport security area!
Could we one day hook up our brains to the internet? Rose Eveleth investigates a claim for the ‘first’ online message sent between two minds.
As internet connections become faster and more of the devices we carry help keep us online, it can sometimes feel like we’re on the verge of spontaneous email communication. I send an email; you receive it, open it, and respond – all in a matter of seconds. Regardless of whether you think near-instant communication is a good thing or not, it’s certainly happening. Not long ago we routinely waited days or weeks for a letter – today even waiting hours for a reply can feel like an eternity.
Perhaps the ultimate way to speed up online communication would be to push towards direct brain-to-brain communication over the web. If brains were directly connected, there would be no more need for pesky typing – we could simply think of an idea and send it instantly to a friend, whether they are in the same room or half the world away. We’re not there yet, of course, but a recent study took a first step in that direction, claiming direct between people thousands of miles from one another.
The work is simply a proof of concept, as Giulio Ruffini, one of the researchers on the project – and CEO of Starlab, based in Barcelona – is quick to explain. The team did not, as some reported, send words or thoughts or emotions from one brain to another. Instead they did something much simpler.
Here’s how it worked. One subject – in this case a man in Kerala, India – was fitted with a brain-computer interface that records brainwaves through the scalp. That person was then instructed to imagine they were moving either their hands, or their feet. If he imagined moving his feet, the computer recorded a zero. If he imagined moving his hands, it recorded a one.
This string of zeros and ones was then sent through the internet to a receiver: a man in Strasbourg, France. He was fitted with something called a TMS robot – a robot designed to deliver strong but short electrical pulses to the brain. When the sender thought about moving his hands, the TMS robot zapped the receiver’s brain in a way that made him see light – even though his eyes were closed. The receiver saw no light if the sender thought about moving his feet.
To make the message more meaningful, the researchers came up with a cipher: one string of zeros and ones (or hands and feet) meant “hola” and another meant “ciao”. The receiver – who had also been taught the cipher – could then decode the signal of lights to interpret which word the sender had sent.
This might sound simple, but at each stage there are complications. The sender has to concentrate extremely hard to focus only on imagining moving their hands or feet. Any other activity in the brain can cloud the signal, and make it hard to pick up the message. In fact, the sender had to be trained in how to do this properly.
The whole process isn’t fast, either. The researchers estimated that from brain to brain the transmission speed was about two bits (a zero and a one) per minute. So to get even a simple message from one brain to another would take a while. But when it happened, and it worked, Ruffini says it was exciting.
“I mean, you can look at this experiment in two ways,” he says. “On the one hand it’s quite technical and a very humble proof of concept. On the other hand, this was the first time it was done, so it was a little bit of a historical moment I suppose, and it was pretty exciting. After all the years thinking about it and finding the means to do it, it felt pretty good.”
Just a stunt?
There is actually some debate over whether the experiment really does represent a first. Last year, a team at Harvard hooked up a man’s brain to a rat’s tail, and he was able to make the tail twitch just by thinking. Also last year, a group at the University of Washington was able to create a brain-to-brain interface in which a sender gained some control over a receiver’s motor cortex, allowing him to send messages that caused the receiver’s hand to subconsciously strike a keyboard. Consequently, one scientist told IEEE Spectrum he thought Ruffini’s work was “pretty much a stunt”, and had “all been shown before”. But Ruffini’s experiment is certainly the first in which a brain-to-brain connection was attempted over such great a distance, and the first time the receiver was consciously interpreting the signal.
And Ruffini has bigger dreams. He wants to transmit feelings, sensations, and complete thoughts between brains. “The technology is very limited right now, but some day can be very powerful,” he says. “Some day we will transcend verbal communications.”
There are advantages to doing so, he says. Receiving another’s thoughts directly into your brain might allow people to more effectively put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel, which could make the world a better place. “I think most of the world’s problems stem from the fact that we have different viewpoints and we don’t understand how other people see or feel about the world,” he says, “Being able to actually feel what other people are feeling, it would change a lot.” He even talks about applying the method to animals, to understand their world and feelings.
Before they can send fully formed concepts, the next step for the team is to try to transmit something more complicated than a one or a zero. This might involve stimulating the brain at multiple sites, and moving beyond using the perception of light as the signal. “The way we have encoded information in the brain, it’s distributed, there is not a single place where the word ‘hello’ is stored,” says Ruffini. To transmit language directly, he says, the researchers will have to figure out how to stimulate the networked brain in a new way. And if they want to send sensations, they’ll have to figure out how to stimulate those segments of the brain too. What makes the task even harder is the fact that the researchers want to do this stimulation externally, without invasive – but more precise – brain implants.
Of course, with this kind of power comes danger too. Anything sent over the internet can be hacked and tracked. The ability to send messages directly into a person’s brain is, to some, a terrifying concept. “It can potentially be some day used in a negative way – you could try to take control of [somebody’s] motor system,” says Ruffini. But he points out that researchers are a long way from being able to do anything even remotely so sophisticated.
Still, it remains an intriguing thought that one day, many decades from now, you might be digesting emails, messages or even an article like this one directly into your mind.
The goal of this project is to design a device that attaches to an everyday bicycle. The Bike Generator harvests energy from the movement of powerful magnets on the bike’s back wheel, or from a motor mechanically connected to one of the bike’s wheels. Through the use of electromagnetism, a battery then stores that power in a battery with the intention of charging electronics at a later time. By using a device to make the bicycle stationary, the Bike Generator could also be used as an exercise bike in a gym, and could potentially generate power that could go back into the electrical grid.
Let’s see what happens between now & the project’s end in May.
Pilotless drones have had the biggest impact on the battlefield, serving as eyes in the sky and even as attack aircraft. But could they find another role, helping farmers boost food production?
The popular image of drones is as expensive pieces of military hardware which can be used for spying – or even going on the offensive.
But that’s changing as robots become more integrated with our everyday lives. Farming is one of the new frontiers, as food production has become more automated – everything from GPS-guided tractors to automated milking machines – and drones are started to be incorporated into what’s known as precision agriculture.
Robots are being used to survey crops and help farmers manage the water and chemicals they use in vast fields. Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, recently switched careers to move into drone manufacturing. He co-founded 3D Robotics, which is building drones in Mexico and the US which may one day keep a beady electronic eye on the food being grown for our tables.