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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Algorithms already recommend shows for us to watch on Netflix, songs for us to listen to on Spotify, and products for us to buy on Amazon but when it comes to reading good old fashioned books we are often on our own.  Sure, Amazon does make recommendations but those are just surface level recommendations.  Customers who bought this book also bought this book.  Or here are some other books by this same author.

But what if there was a way to make recommendations based on more subtle clues?  Such as you have an affinity for books with an orange cover so here are some more books with orange covers. Or here are some other books with strong female protagonists.  Well, in the near future that level of recommendation may be possible.  But that’s not all.  We may also have books that are interactive, gamified, and filled with all sorts of technological tricks that increase reader engagement.  And we’ll have all those thanks to a company called OverDrive.

According to Futurism:

“[CEO Steve] Potash envisions a slew of ways to improve books with AI, like smart assistants that take on the persona of an author, AR content that drops readers inside the historical scene they’re reading about, or games built into books that help students learn new words and concepts.

In the meantime, OverDrive is trudging ahead with backend AI systems, that either help libraries buy books that are more likely to circulate or help teachers find books that actually teach the lessons that they want to work into their curricula.”

These ideas aren’t exactly new.  They’re just hard to pull off.  And I wonder if they are even necessary.  Our imaginations already transport us to the historical scenes that we’re reading about and audio books already let authors talk directly to their audience.  But at the same time anything that increases reader engagement and gets more kids excited about reading is probably a good thing.  If there are ways to gamify reading that can let books compete with video games than that could be a real game changer.  Literally.

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Is OverDrive the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I just finished reading one of the greatest books of all-time, The Half-Life of Facts, a fascinating look through the lens of mathematics at how knowledge constantly changes and what we can do to try and stay on top of those changes; something that is especially important in today’s day and age of fake news where staying informed in a politically charged climate isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a necessity.

Unfortunately, for most of us we tend to stop learning once we’re done receiving our primary education, either after finishing high school or after completing a Bachelors or Master’s degree.  Of course we still “learn” new things throughout life, either through osmosis, our social networks, shows and movies, the occasional book, or nowadays the ever popular podcast method.  But we’re not actively studying random facts outside of our chosen professions just for the hell of it like we did when we were in grade school.  If we do learn something new as adults it’s highly likely that what we’re learning is going to tie in with what we’re already interested in and conform with our already firmly established worldviews.  Taking the time to gather all the relevant facts, to learn both sides of an issue, to stay informed on every issue, just doesn’t happen all that often.

That’s why fake news spreads so easily.  Why there is so much political upheaval. Why there are so many Climate Change deniers.  Why there are Flat Earthers.  We have all become victims of our cognitive biases, refusing to change our worldviews even when presented with compelling new evidence, choosing to believe that which we grew up believing, that which adheres to how we already perceive the world.  Our only hope for a better future, a cleaner future, a future with less hate, is to become more open-minded, to become skilled in the art of learning new facts, to get to the point where it becomes second-nature to always learn new things and accept new facts, even paradigm shifting facts that change the way the world works.

In order for that to happen we need to change how we learn.  No longer can it be acceptable for people to shut down their minds and coast through life once they are done with their formal schooling.  No longer can it be acceptable for people to reside in online filter bubbles that reinforce their personal beliefs.  No longer can life-long learning be considered an optional pursuit, something left to academics, nerds, and bored retirees.  Instead we need to establish a culture based around continuing education.  Based around the constant pursuit of obtaining the latest knowledge, across all walks of life.

As someone who has needed to pass certain licensing exams for their job I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds horrible.  The idea of giving up one’s free time to continuously study for and take exams is not an appealing one.  But at the same time it may be a necessity of life in the 21st century, a necessity of living in a time where facts are constantly changing at breakneck speeds.

And honestly, it may not be all that bad.  I’m not talking about serious, intensive exams on a weekly basis.  Perhaps just a few short online quizzes twice a year to make sure that people know what’s going on.  Something that can be passed in a manner of minutes after watching a brief online tutorial.  Something that would cover the latest Climate news, the latest scientific breakthroughs, a political story or two, the occasional fact changing (Pluto is no longer a planet, dinosaurs had feathers), etc.  Just a mix of information to make sure that people know what’s going on in the world, what’s really going on, not just what the latest memes are.  What’s the latest with Brexit?  What are the current carbon dioxide levels? Is red wine currently good for you or not?  What’s the latest crazy thing that Elon Musk said? What’s the latest diet craze all about?  In short, what do I realistically need to know to be an educated voter, a functioning member of society, or even just a good parent, spouse, friend, or neighbor.

Best of all such a continuous education program would create a never ending source of jobs – for the people creating the content, to those administering it, to those offering extra-help tutoring sessions, to those enforcing it.  In a future where autonomous robots take away all of jobs we’re going to need to think outside the box to create new jobs that only humans can do.  An entire cottage industry springing up around continuous education could be one possible solution.

Such a program could even tie into other aspects of society.  For instance, if China’s experimental social credit program takes off and people receive reputation scores that follow them then maybe the continuing education program could tie in with those scores.  If you have passed the latest tests you’ll have a higher reputation score than someone who hasn’t, indicating that you are more trustworthy since you are more informed.  Or perhaps the testing could be incentivized.  Those who take and pass the exams would receive better car insurance rates or better credit scores.  Or points that they can trade in for airline miles, Amazon.com gift cards, or discounts from their favorite retailers, etc. whatever the case may be.

I’m sure that some people will be opposed to this idea but there is already precedent for it.  Financial Advisors and medical professionals are already required to undergo continuing education training.  Anyone who works in an office and takes annual cybersecurity or ethics training does the same.  When it comes to being a subject matter expert in your chosen profession it’s obviously important to stay on top of the latest news in your field.  People’s lives and their livelihoods literally depend on it.  Shouldn’t that same logic apply when it’s your life and your livelihood that’s on the line?

All in all, it’s become increasingly clear that we need to think long and hard about thinking long and hard.  That we need to be cognizant of the fact that our facts are constantly changing.  If we don’t then our society may very well be on the verge of making the plot of Idiocracy come to fruition.  A horrible fate that would doom us all.  So if we don’t want that to happen we will have to take drastic, society-wide action to ensure that we raise the education level of all citizens, at all times.  A continuing education program, that would be a necessary evil in the war against ignorance, may very well be the way to do just that.

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Is lifelong learning the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The way something looks and feels matters.  And not just to designers and architects.  But to everyone.  It’s why wedding invitations are written in calligraphy and it’s why Apple obsesses over their packaging.  But at the same time I’m not usually one to pay that much attention to granular details like what font someone is using.

Granted, I do like some more than others.  I’m particularly partial to Calibri.  But I’m not going to stop reading someone’s blog if they are using Times New Roman instead.  A font is a font is a font.  You may have your preferences.  And some may fit certain situations better than others.  But at the end of the day it’s just semantics.  Just a simple matter of taste.

Or is it?  What if a font could be more than just a font?  What if it could change the world?  Well, soon there may be a font capable of doing just that, thanks to the aptly named Sans Forgetica, capable of upending our preconceived notions about what a font is or should be.  That’s because Sans Forgetica is more than just a simple typeface.  It’s a whole new way of learning.

As CNET puts it, “Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Australia have developed an entirely new font designed ‘using the principles of cognitive psychology’ to help you better remember your study notes. The font is a sans serif style typeface, with two unusual features: It slants slightly left, which is a rarely used design principle in typography, and it’s full of holes.

Those holes have a purpose though. They make Sans Forgetica harder to read, tricking your brain into using ‘deeper cognitive processing’ and promoting better memory retention. The psychological learning principle is known as ‘desirable difficulty’ and that obstruction — the holes — mean you dwell on each word just a little bit longer.”

The importance of Sans Forgetica in today’s day and age of speed reading, headline glancing, and information overload cannot be overstated.  Since we can’t force people to be more mindful, to live in the moment more, to take their time when reading, then we might as well do the next big thing.  Design an elegant solution to help people retain more information and build that solution right into the very words themselves.  An absolutely genius approach to education.  Even though I didn’t write this post using Sans Forgetica hopefully we won’t forget about it.  For implementing it across society could have profound effects.

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Is Sans Forgetica the Greatest Idea Ever?  Do you remember anything I just said?

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Zac Efron is hanging out with Simone Biles while police search for Ryan Lochte.  Couches are attacking kayakers while the U.S. Men’s Basketball team is getting criticized left and right by people sitting on their couches.   Algae is infecting pools while controversial dives across finish lines take place outside of pools.  There sure is a lot going on in Rio right now.  And yet the story that I’m drawn to has nothing to do with the Olympic games at all.  Rather, I’d like to focus on the unheralded Museum of Tomorrow which opened late last year.

As Wired UK explains:

“The project brought together architects, researchers and government to create a space where climate change and the Earth’s future are its core focus. ‘We thought, why not make the social and political discussion of sustainability the main approach of a museum?’ says Hugo Barreto, secretary general at the Roberto Marinho Foundation, which oversaw the building’s development and partly funded its construction.  The two-story building, which opened in December 2015, explores five themes: the Cosmos, the Earth, the Anthropocene, Tomorrow and Us. Inside, a 140-metre-long pearlescent gallery is flanked by parallel spaces where visitors are guided through several future-gazing displays: one is
an egg-shaped auditorium showing a 360° film about the Universe. In another, six ten-meter pillars display images and data that demonstrate humans’ impact on the planet.”

As a futurist I absolutely love this idea.  If it was up to me every major city would have a Museum of the Future sitting adjacent to their Science Center and Museum of Natural History.  Or in the case of San Diego’s Balboa Park next to their 17 museums.  This way there would exist a place where people can go and dream about the future, about creating a better life for themselves.  The kind of place that Disney’s Tomorrowland once exemplified.  The kind of place that the World’s Fair once embodied.  The kind of place that, outside of Rio, just doesn’t exist anymore.

Most museums pay homage to the past, giving citizens a chance to view famous works of art, learn about historical time periods or gaze upon the creatures that once roamed the Earth.  That’s great and all, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps our educational approach has been misguided.  Perhaps a better approach to educating our citizens would be to frame current world problems in a futuristic context the way the Museum of Tomorrow is tackling sustainability.  After all, you can learn a lot about the climate by looking at how the Earth used to look and seeing how much has changed over the years.  But you might not be motivated to care about what it’ll look like going forward until you actually see exactly what it’ll look like going forward.

Now more than ever we need a place like this.  A place where we can emphasis the importance of counteracting climate change.  A place where we can use cold, hard, scary scientific facts to scare ourselves straight.  A place where we can openly debate the awe-inspiring yet fear-inducing promise of Artificial Intelligence and CRISPR based DNA editing.  In short, a place built on hopes and dreams where we can learn to embrace innovation, not fear it.

The stakes have never been higher.  We’ve reached a critical junction in our evolution.  A point in time where we can either plateau, soar to new heights, or digress.  The only way we’ll be able to get over that hurdle, to rise above the challenges facing us, is to tackle our problems head on.  And the other way to do that is to look straight out past the horizon towards the future.  A Museum of Tomorrow in every major city, taking its rightful place at the forefront of our collective consciousness, would do just that.  If only we had the foresight to let it.

Is the Museum of Tomorrow the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#919 – MasterClass

Forget about the Etsy killer Society6 for a second.  I may have found something even better: a website known as MasterClass that offers exclusive video tutorials with famous subject matter experts.  Think of it like Khan Academy for the Real World.  And it’s kind of a big deal.

Want to learn how to write a screenplay?  Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin will show you how.  A book?  There’s James Patterson for that.  Want to get into show business on the other side of things?  Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman will teach you to act, Usher will teach you how to perform, and Christina Aguilera will teach you how to sing.  You basically just got the same education that a finalist on the Voice receives and you didn’t even have to clear your throat.

Unprecedented access to thought leaders on this scale is something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.  Now it’s a business model.  Take Sorkin for example.  I actually used to work with one of his relatives and tried to pitch a script idea to him.  I never heard back.  Now all I have to do is take his class and I’ll probably wind up getting more useful information than I would have if he had ever written back to me.  You can’t really put a price on that.

Of course, seeing as how this is a business, MasterClass does in fact put prices on their course offerings.  But here’s the thing.  The prices are relatively cheap.  The Sorkin series contains 35 videos, totaling over 7 hours of content, and costs just $90.  For the price of admission you also get a 38 page workbook and have the ability to upload videos to interact with the rest of the class and with Sorkin.  There’s even a chance that he’ll critique your work.

The appeal of these courses isn’t limited to the students though.  As the New York Times writes, “Other instructors said the appeal was more visceral. Mr. Hoffman recalled an evening at his home in the late 1970s when the English actor Sir Laurence Olivier regaled him with tales of his youth on the London stage. ‘Those stories are lost forever,’ Mr. Hoffman said. He saw in MasterClass a chance to create a permanent record of what he has learned.”

It’s with that in mind that I encourage everyone to check out this site and see if there are any classes that may be worth taking.  As for me?  I’ll be busy absorbing every word that Annie Leibovitz has to say about photography.

Is MasterClass the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I love the library.  It’s where I grew up.  Where I spent many a summer hour reading the latest Dirk Pitt adventure.  Where I spent countless hours doing research for this blog.  I can’t speak a lot of Spanish but one thing I can say confidently is “Donde Esta La Biblioteca?!”  I’ve thought about working in a library.  Dreamt of dating a hot librarian.  Whenever I travel to a new city the first thing I do is check out the local public library’s periodicals section.  No back issues of Wired Magazine on premise?  Two demerits for you!

So what I’m about to say next may surprise you: we need to completely overhaul our libraries.  Take a sledgehammer and wrecking ball to them.  Completely redefine what they are all about.  You see, most libraries have become as outdated as some of the books they carry.  Who needs reference books when you have Google?  Who needs microfiche machines when you have computers?  Shelves and shelves of hard covers?  Um, no thanks I’m good with my Kindle.  If it wasn’t for DVD rentals, public workshops, and computer labs would anyone even go there anymore?

We need to change all that.  To make the library the place to be once more.  To make it the innovation hub that it once was; that it should always be.  How do we do that?  It’s simple: we take it’s basic principles and expand upon them.  Instead of just lending out books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs and the like let’s also lend out supplies, tools, the latest gadgets, etc.  Anything that someone might need to use to create something or experience something new for the first time.  Essentially, instead of just reading about something let’s also empower someone to try it out first hand at the same time. A one stop shop for the DIY generation.  The perfect embodiment of the sharing economy that we’ve recently embraced.

As Fast Company writes, “Someone interested in knitting, for example, can check out needles alongside how-to books for a week to see if the hobby sticks. Or a parent can borrow a pole and tackle to gauge a child’s interest in fishing before buying expensive gear.”

Creating a tool or gadget library is a great idea but let’s not just stop there.  Let’s also make the library the place to be for using expensive, inaccessible hardware.  The place where people can go to learn about the latest technology from hands on experience.  For example, the Washington Post writes that, “Cleveland and D.C. are part of an expanding club of public libraries making 3-D printers available to patrons, often as part of a “maker lab” type environment.”

While we’re at it let’s also expand upon the basic tenet of library as public meeting place.  Instead of just hosting creative writing workshops or book club meetings or meet the author events lets also host gatherings geared towards millennials, young professionals, and entrepreneurs such as teaching people how to code or start a business.  Let’s create co-working spaces so that like minded individuals can have a place to meet and talk about their business plans.  Kind of like a Starbucks but with fewer hipsters and less douchebaggery.

Libraries have always been quick to adapt to the changing times as they’ve embraced computers, e-books, DVDs and the like over the years.  But somewhere along the line the mission statement got muddled. Instead of continuing to serve the public’s needs regardless of what they were a line was drawn.  It’s time that we crossed that line.  Time that we made our old fashioned book repositories into a dynamic, multi-purpose public use facility that’s a maker lab, co-working space, and gadget library all rolled into one.

In the mean time if anyone knows of any hot, single librarians please send them my way!

Isn’t it time that we redefined what a library is?

 

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The other day I discussed my desire to create a foundation that would be dedicated to speeding up and then maintaining a faster pace of innovation.  I mentioned that such a foundation could be well suited for ensuring the creation of a standard for the Internet of Things and for making a push for a habitable colony on Mars.  Continuing with that theme here is a look at some other initiatives that would be ideal candidates for this foundation to pursue.  Keep in mind that these are all things that relate to innovation or inventiveness, that would otherwise get neglected, and whose implementation or wide spread adaptation would lead to significant gains towards scientific knowledge or the advancement of mankind as a whole. 

Access to Scientific Papers 

Jack Andraka may not even be old enough to drive but when he speaks I listen.  After all, despite not knowing anything about the pancreas this teenage wunderkind was able to create a test that detects pancreatic cancer.  Now while most kids his age are consumed with sending disappearing photos to one another Andraka has set his sights on something more annoying to him than a bout of acne on a first date: limited access to scientific papers.  The way Andraka see it there is no greater deterrent to the pace of innovation than when professors can’t even share their own work because some journal owns the copyright to it.  By pursuing profits we’re stifling innovation.  

This point is driven home in the most recent issue of Wired UK in a profile on Andraka: 

“Andraka pointed out that although you can buy a Katy Perry track for less than a pound, it costs £22 to view a seminal research paper, and that Harvard Universitey – the richest academic institution in the world – said it can no longer afford research journals. ‘Science benefits from the open flow of information, not paywalls,’ Andraka argued.  One percent of the population has access to scientific papers, he said – a ‘knowledge aristocracy’, whereas, he said, ‘we could live in a knowledge democracy’.” 

Unfortunately for Andraka and scientists everywhere there is no end in sight to this business model.  The Innovation Foundation could aim to change that. 

Space Agenda 

Just like the way that putting a man on the moon inspired an entire generation of people so too could a global effort to establish a habitable colony on Mars.  Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen if we leave it up to NASA.  That’s because right now they are more concerned with returning to the Moon….to grow plants.  What the what?!!?! 

If we are ever going to colonize Mars or anywhere else for that matter and ensure the long term survival of our species we’re going to have to take matters in our own hands.  As of now that means putting our faith into the hands of some TV programmers who want to turn the colonization of the red planet into a reality show in order to help foot the bill.  Surely there must be a better way.  And there is.  All we have to do is let the Innovation Foundation set a global Space Agenda ensuring that we’re maximizing resources, utilizing key manpower, and keeping costs down while achieving all of our goals from colonization to mining asteroids to creating better methods of detecting exo-planets. 

This is not only achievable, it’s dare I say necessary. 

Education Curriculum 

I mentioned the potential for this foundation to get involved in setting a global education agenda in yesterday’s post but it bears repeating.  Whether we’re talking about putting a 3-D printer in every school or a laptop in the hand of every child or making it mandatory to learn programming there are no shortage of important education based innovation initiatives.  For example, this foundation could continue to follow the Udacity business model and help corporations design courses that lead to the creation of a workforce that’s actually equipped to handle a modern day workload.  They could even get involved in government advocacy ensuring that all senators and congressmen are tech savvy and up to speed on all the important issues so that personal biases don’t cloud people’s judgment and lead to bureaucratic slowdowns.  Of course that’s easier said than done but if anyone could do it a collective of the greatest minds of our time certainly could.  

Approach to Artificial Intelligence

In the same issue of The Atlantic that gave me the idea for the Innovation Foundation there was an article about Douglas Hofstadter, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book about Artificial Intelligence, Godel, Escher, Bach.  That book is often referred to as the bible of Artificial Intelligence and in it Hofstadter outlines his desire to use AI to understand human intelligence.  Unfortunately for him, modern day computer scientists are more results oriented, concerning themselves with programs like IBM’s Watson that can analyze large data sets even if that means they aren’t becoming truly intelligent.  Hofstadter’s inability to reconcile the modern day approach to AI has caused his star to fade and has lead to a sense of loneliness for someone who was once on top of the world.

This bothers me.  Why is it that Hofstadter’s approach to AI has been abandoned when it was once celebrated?  Just because he’s asking hard questions?  Just because no one else is willing to dedicate their lives to finding the answers?  What if his approach was the right one?  What if we’re limiting ourselves by creating systems that are great are translating text from one language to another but not so great at mostly everything else that makes us human?  What if we could advance civilization a hundred fold if we could build a truly intelligent system based on our understanding of how our own minds work?  This is where the Innovation Foundation would come into play.  The various thought leaders that comprise its membership would ensure that we keep an open mind and don’t get bogged down into any one approach to artificial intelligence or any field for that matter.

The Greatest Ideas Ever

As someone who has come up with literally thousands of ideas that will never see the light of day I often wonder if there are any other people out there like me.  People like Douglas Hofstadter that maybe broke through with one seminal idea and were never heard of from again despite the fact that they still have more great ideas to share.  People like Elon Musk who up until last year was sitting on the idea for the Hyperloop because he was too busy to develop it on his own.

I’d love for the Innovation Foundation to make a push to retrieve those ideas.  Perhaps a vast database, maintained by Watson, could be created to get every idea, every thought, every morsel of human intelligence into one place for future generations to reference.  Anything and everything from a doodle on a diner napkin to a published research paper would be fair game.  Anything that could help us fill in the missing pieces and help us move forward.

Final Thoughts

How is it possible that two people on opposite ends of the planet can come up with reasonable facsimiles of the same idea at roughly the same time as was the case with the theory of evolution?

Why is it that the wheel was around for hundreds of years before anyone thought of creating a wheel barrow?

Conversely why is it that the pace of technological advancements quickened in the last ten years when compared to the ten that preceded it?

Why is it that some people are creative while others are not?

How it is that some people can patent hundreds of inventions while others never get past a sketch on a piece of paper?

All in all, as those questions demonstrate, the mechanics of innovation are so complex, so unwieldy that they require our full attention.   Demand it even.  How we can sit idly by watching the world change all around us is beyond me.  We need to be taking a proactive approach to ensuring our future.  Need to be taking steps to ensure that we’re not caught off guard and that we keep driving forward, keep pushing ourselves to new heights.  The Innovation Foundation could do exactly that.  Let’s make it happen.

I know how you feel, Jack. I want access to scientific papers too.

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