Thursday, February 02, 2023

Education may be the death of us!

Having grown up with the orthodox belief that overpopulation will be the death of us, I now find myself among catastrophists who see low birth rates as the death of us. You can’t win in the catastrophe business!

In the Far East, Japan, having encouraged everyone to work til they drop and blocked immigration, is now sleepwalking into an ageing population, falling birth rate, high state spend future and low productivity collapse. China faces an even bigger problem, living with the consequences of an enforced Maoist prohibition on having children, also an imbalance between men and women - last time I checked boys don’t give birth. They have urbanised quickly killing the birth rate even further.
In Europe, from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, down through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece and Italy the falling population problem has been compounded by an exodus to the richer Western Europe. Economic migrants take the possibility of economic growth with them and leave behind an ageing population, in. a low tax base economy, that need care. Migration is not win-win, it is win-lose. Your young people, who you pay to get educated and trained, flee to richer countries leaving you less able to generate wealth or look after your rapidly ageing population. Eastern and Southern Europe is increasingly becoming a depopulated region, with mass migration out, requiring huge sums to be sent back in by the few EU donor nations who are themselves feeling the crunch. The donor nations in the North and West, about one third, are subsidising the other two thirds in the East and South.
Peter Zaihan’s book ‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning’ goes into real detail on the consequences of this depopulation crisis. One of the interesting features of falling fertility is that people are either not having children at all, having fewer children or fewer children later. Combine this with people living much longer and the median age starts to push up and up, so the pyramid starts to invert.
One of the drivers behind the falling number of children appears to be education. Isn’t is odd that something that is seen as a social good may end up atrophying the total number of people in the social pool. Extending the amount of time young people spend in education - now up to 18, then in Higher Education to 22/23, now a Masters Degree to 23/24 - has been sold as necessary (neat marketing trick). We now have a huge number of people being non-productive during some of their most productive years. They rarely have children during their studies, or afterwards, as they are only starting to build a career in their mid-twenties. As Daniel Dennett says, education turned out to be the most anti-evolutionary cultural trait in our species. He finds it almost impossible to get this empirical fact over to his students - that this may not, in the end, be great for humanity as a whole.
Others such as Goodhart in his book Head, Heart and Hand: Why intelligence is over-rewarded, manual workers matter, and caregivers deserve more respect (2021), plea for the rebalancing of society, economics and rewards away from the Head (cognitive work) towards the Hand (making and manual work) and Heart (health and care work). We have reached what he calls 'Peak Head', the focus on funnelling everyone towards University degrees on a single route towards a single, cognitive elite.
In The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? (2020) Sandel diagnoses a relatively recent shift from the common good to a competitive meritocracy in Higher Education. The financialisation of economies, and changes of attitudes towards success have led to a divide between winners and losers. Finance has moved away from the greater good and rewards for all, towards enormous rewards for the few who work in finance, based on speculative finance, not the creation of valuable goods and services.
This has eaten away at the dignity of ordinary work. Rewards have become hopelessly imbalanced, buoyed up by meritocratic hubris and the success ethic. If chances are assumed to be equal or could be made equal, then those that flourish can attribute their success to personal agency, it is all down to their effort. This is what animates the meritocratic ideal. But social divides have deepened, aided by Higher Education, which induces a feeling that the winners, the graduate class, deserve their success and that the rest fail because it is their fault, which has led to one group looking down on the other. A side effect of this is a lack of respect for vocational skills and work.
The collapse of society, in my view, is far more likely to be a social collapse, or some totalitarian takeover a la Trump, Jinping or Putin, than climate change. That social collapse may come within decades due to not having enough people in rich societies to actually keep them functioning, fiscally or socially. The population pyramid is about to invert with more older than younger people, leaving less people to pay for the old, buy goods in the economy and the geopolitical consequences are frightening.

Friday, January 27, 2023

We've lit the fuse in fusion!

My business has been, and is, the future. I have literally built and helped businesses and organisations walk into the future, written four books on the future, predicted Trump victory in front of an audience at Trump’s alma mater in the US (not all futures are fun) on the night of his election, predicted Brexit, predicted the rise of online, now AI. After a lifetime, not of techno-determinism, but techno-optimism, seeing technology not as faultless but as something that makes life longer, more satisfying and easier, I was blown away by an even that took place on my birthday - Dec 5 2022.
Last night I watched Dougald Hines, of the Dark Mountain Project fame, who wants us to resign to our fate among the modern ruins of climate change and return to some sort of primitive world of poverty and self-loathing. He does however want you to buy his book and fly to a beautiful island in Greece for his conference this summer. To be fair he was articulate, then again so were most of the ascetics who turned the middle ages into the Dark Age with their self-hate and self-flagellation. Similarly with the Children’s crusade that is Greta and Extinction Rebellion, a priesthood who want to impose from. their position of privilege, a life of suffering on the already poor.
The thing that excited me and should have excites us all, but received scant news attention – was an event in ‘fusion’, the tech that promises huge amounts of cheap energy without emissions, waste or the risk of it being weaponised. We managed to light the fuse that is fusion.
People want climate change taught in schools, I’d prefer they taught it alongside science and fusion. Most rational beings agree that the future looks bad for the planet due to climate change and that we humans cause it. But there is a tendency for the extremes of both sides to exaggerate – the deniers and the doomsayers. I am optimistic because the FUSION story has just taken a jump forward.
What is fusion? Let’s start with E=MC2. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. This last number ‘C’ is very large and squared, therefore huge. So if we can take a tiny bit of mass and turn it into energy, a gargantuan amount of energy is produced. This already happens in fission (current nuclear power) and is the same physics applies to fusion. But fission and fusion are opposites. Fission splits particles, fusion melds particles together.
Fission takes Uranium and forces the atom apart to create energy, which forms a stable but controlled chain reaction, a la Diana Ross, to create heat and then electricity. If that chain reaction runs away, it forms a nuclear reaction, hence the eponymous nuclear bomb. There’s also waste, but not as much as you think and compared to other energy sources it is relatively safe and, importantly, emission free. We should be using it now, something the world has found literally to its, and our, cost.
Fusion does the opposite of fission. We take hydrogen particles, squeeze them until they are super dense, become unstable and release heat as they change state, we force the neutrons together, until they release huge amounts of heat. This is actually the source for almost all renewable energy, solar and wind as all sunlight comes from the sun, which is a huge fusion reactor. It is also safe, which is why a star is stable for billions of years, has no runaway effect, so can’t be weaponised and is emission free.
We are the children of fusion, as all ne elements arise from this fiery process in stars. Without fusion, there is no us, no evolution, no brains that can eventually harness the very power that created us.
Governments and huge amounts of private investment (astonishingly only $5 billion to date), along with research know-how, have come together and the first success was in California in the US , where they shot 192 lasers at a tiny diamond capsule and for a tiny moment created heat from fusion. For the first time they extracted a net gain from ignition. The crossed the first of several Rubicons.
We predict a 1.5-2 degree temperature rise by 2050, yet the predictions for fusion are coming in the range of early 2O30s to 2060s. The median seems to be mid 204Os, confirmed by this recent breakthrough. Even if it is late we’re on track to solve this problem by the dates mentioned in the Paris accord. Disaster is averted without hundreds of millions being plunged back into poverty. We’ve seen a touch of that future, as this year begins with huge energy bills and worldwide inflation. We live lives of relative comfort, largely free from the domestic labour that I remember even in my childhood, with automatic washing machines, dishwashers, lighting, heating and cooking facilities, TVs and computers. Most of us have cars, TVs, smartphones and the internet. All of this can be adequately fuelled when abundant electricity from pea size fuel sources comes on tap through fusion. We will have guaranteed cheap energy. Electric vehicles will be universal and we can build a world based, not on destruction, but hope and optimism.
The Greek Promethean myth, where Prometheus was handed fire by the Gods, and created hell on earth, washed through the concept of sacrifice in Christianity, the historical determinism of Marxism, the dysfunctional psychoanalysis of Freud and now the hair shirts of Extinction Rebellion. The planet has gone through five major geological extinctions, by climate change, one an asteroid.
This is not an extinction event. AI will herald unlimited smart technology to solve problems and fusion will solve the energy problem. The triumph of our species is our ability to think, solve problems and adapt. Copernicus threw us out of being the centre of the universe to an annual orbit around the sun, Darwin made us humble enough to accept that we were creatures among creatures. We found ourselves alone and Godless, but we are Homo sapiens, the knowing ape, and have realised that we must solve our own problems. It is our responsibility to save ourselves and build the future for ourselves.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Slaughterhouse live - my first real job!

People in education and learning often imagine that everyone works in an office and is in need of hokey 'Leadership' training. Working people who do physical jobs, not on Zoom, are often written out of the narrative. I've had some of those jobs.

In fact, I’m always surprised when young people get to University or start their first job after graduating, having never worked. Sure paper rounds have gone the way of newspapers, and employing children is no longer easy but it’s part of growing up. More than school, college or any University, it’s your first honest encounter with real people and the real world.

What follows may seem like fiction but, believe me, every word is hard fact. I had a paper round for two years, delivering the Evening News (Pink on a Saturday) in a tough housing estate (scheme in Scotland) called Craigshill (affectionally called Crazyhill by those in the posher estates to the west). I also had to collect the money, which wasn’t easy, as my pay was a percentage of the takings. It is where we lived and seemed quite normal but nothing prepared me for my first real job. I was 16, still another year to go at school and I got work at Halls of Broxburn. It was a slaughterhouse.
Up early in those wet, dark mornings, it was five miles by bus. Nothing prepared me for what was coming. There were three of us and we were given white lab-like coats, tight greenish gloves, hair nets and black wellingtons. This seemed nice, I thought, almost clinical. In we went, pushing through big black plastic sheets that acted as doors and then the smell hit me. It was an indescribable concoction, a thick, meaty but also charnel and chemical smell. It smelt like hell.
Our first task was standing either side of the bandsaw, where huge, half carcasses of pigs were sliced up into great chunks, one to the left, the other the right – legs, loins, bellies and shoulders. The great chunks of flesh slid off into our hands and we packed them into big, white, plastic tubs. It was dangerous work and more than one of the old hands literally had an old hand that was missing a finger or two.
The butchers worked away on benches, skilled men, paring red meat from the bone. They moved quickly, knives flashing, tossing the shorn meat into vats. One later showed me the scars on his stomach, they all had them from knives that had, by accident, slipped. Every so often one would stop and sharpen the blade on a rough rod of steel. The noise was chilling.
A few days in, I knew something was up. I had already been sent for the left handed screwdriver and was now wary of these rituals but was told to go to the station at the far end of the slaughterhouse. This, I knew, was where the pigs were slaughtered. Pushing hard through two transparent flaps of plastic I saw a gruesome spectacle. Pigs came in, hung up by their back legs. They had been stunned. You could hear the shots, on the other side, great thuds but far worse, the horrific squeals. And here, right in front of me, they were having their throats cut. Out of the red slash on their throats thick spurts of blood pumped out, straight into big aluminium milk vats. It was a rite of passage for newbies like us and they enjoyed the idea of us weaklings having a heart of darkness moment. I mean that literally, as stunned but still living, their beating hearts pumped the blood out into the vats. This blood was later congealed, spiced and turned into black puddings. Three hundred pigs a day were slaughtered and moved around on a rail on the roof, hung up on chains by their back feet, a great cavalcade of carcasses, that wobbled, shivered, some still jerking.
I remember a pig escaped from the pens and was running around really fast, squealing. No one wanted to face up to it as it was big, strong and and was charging at people on the trot. It was eventually boxed in with moveable fences and sent back to its death. That was maybe the saddest moment of the whole experience, seeing that poor, terrified creature, witness its own fate.
Back on the bandsaws, my hands had developed sores, as the freshly cut bones had shards that cut through the plastic gloves into our palms. My hands stung when we had to pack the great chunks of loins and gammons into huge vats, filled with salt and nitrate liquid for curing.
Then one day another instruction. I was sent to the ‘burners’. I had no idea what this meant but was about to find out. The great parade of carcasses, once killed and bled, went through to another room. I had heard the noise, a roar every minute or so, regular like great waves hitting the shore and through the slit in the huge, black plastic doors, an orange glow. It looked and sounded like Dante’s Inferno. It was worse.
What I saw were vertical gas jets that roared out flames. They wrapped and licked round the hung carcass. This was to burn the hair off the pig. Pigs are a lot hairier than you think, great thick hairs. Once flamed the hairs singed and curled black and we had to step forward onto little platforms, stripped to the waist, and stand with great curved knives, a wooden handle on both ends, to scrape the burnt hair off in great long, downward strokes. But it was the smell I will never forget, that smell of singed hair you sometimes get when a candle perhaps brushes your hair. Imagine that multiplied by a thousand, a great sickly burning smell hanging in the air. I did this for a day. It was foul work.
At this point I was sure there was no worse job on earth than scraping burnt hair from the skin of still warm pigs. I was wrong. Again after a couple of days back on the bandsaws, my hands now pitted with bone cuts, I was sent to the ‘gut room’. I remember the guy with the Glasgow Rangers scarf, which he wore every day to work, like a cravat, grinning when I walked down toward the gut room.
There was an open door and on the left hand side of the door, a hatch, with what looked like a slide from a children’s playground that went down into the orange glow of the room below. A man stood next to the slide and split the carcass from head to toe, inserted his hand and knife deep inside the split to gather the insides with his arms, an enormous bulbous bundle of organs, then expertly pared and separated them off from the flesh and guided it on to the slide, where it slid silently down into the depths of the gut room.
I has been given huge galoshes and a big rubber apron. Why? Heaven knows, I didn’t. But I was about to find out. Stepping down the wooden staircase, there was a square room, like a cube. It was several inches deep in a sticky, yellowish liquid and in the middle there was a huge mangle. Once again, my forearm came automatically up to cover my nose. This time a sharp, metallic, acidic smell hit the back of my throat. It was the acid contents of stomachs, mixed with great piles of noxious shit from the intestines that were being squeezed out through the mangle. There was surely not a place, even in hell, as awful as this. I’ve yet to find one.
After several weeks of blood, shit, and I don’t mind admitting it - tears, I had made enough money to quit. It was twenty quid a week. My mother charged me rent, that was the deal back then. You work, you pay your way. Even then, I felt as rich as Croesus. Up to that point my experience of money had been entirely in coins. I now had notes!
It was the tail end of summer, so off I went on my own, an old rucksack with leather straps and hitch hiked round Scotland. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free. The air smelt sweet, the hills spectacularly green. I stayed in youth hostels, walked from Inverness through beautiful Glen Affric to the Kyle of Lochalsh then on to Skye and Rasaay. My parents had no idea where I was - no smartphones then. I never looked back. It was too damn frightening to look back.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

OpenAI has opened up AI to the world but will it conquer the world?

We have been using GPT software since its launch in a range of learning tasks and in all three of these books, the idea of AI generating content among many other tasks is covered. It is not a matter of 'if' but when and how much the learning game will be transformed by AI.

AI is the new UI, as well as generating content, learner support, personalisation and assessment. It is leading to smarter platforms, smarter content and smarter forms of delivery.

OpenAI is worth around $30 billion. This doesn’t surprise me. It was set up as a philanthropic entity to create AI for the good of humankind. It has been true to that goal so far, creating some of the most astounding AI services we’ve ever seen. It worked because of its focus on hiring some of the best talent on the planet, funding it well and giving them clear goals.


It started with a $1 Billion investment in December 2015 by Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Greg Brockman, Jessica Livingston, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, AWS, Infosys and YCResearch. It became a ‘capped-for=profit with a $1 Billion investment by Microsoft.


1. Microsoft has invested $1 billion but that deal is not exclusive, so OpenAI can do things for themselves and with others. This gives them the flexibility to do things either solo or in deals with others.


2. DALL-E became a global meme in image creation. It was the start of generative image AI that is going at an incredible speed. It is clear that this will have a major impact on image production, content production, even art. There is also Image GPT.


3. GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is much larger than ChatGPT, with 175 billion parameters compared to ChatGPT's 20 billion parameters. This makes GPT-3 more powerful and capable of handling more complex natural language processing tasks.


4. ChatGPT-3 though, is a dialogue based LLM that was released to huge acclaim. It is truly disruptive as a text generator in areas such as content creation and assessment. It is rumoured that ChatGPT-4 will be released in 2023.


5. Whisper is speech recognition software, trained on a huge and diverse set of audio data. It can generate speech as well as translate and identify languages. 


6. OpenAI Five is a set of five bots that play on five on five games in Dota 2, a computer game. They also have GYM Retroa platform for RL research on video games. 


7. MuseNet has been trained to predict subsequent musical notes in MIDI music files to generate songs with ten different instruments in fifteen different styles.


In just a few years they have managed to create some of the world’s most advanced AI software. There is no guarantee that the existing large tech companies will not be challenged by the new. In fact, it is almost certain. Being small and focussed, well funded, with clear goals, can lead to stunning breakthroughs. Deepmind was a previous example in AI, there will be others.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Amazon a story of how AI became the beating heart of a business

I have written about Amazon in all of my books but especially in 'AI for learning' and 'Learning Technology', as arguably the single largest digital disruptor on the planet. What they did was extraordinary, to take a bricks and mortar sector and turn it into a global, digital service. They have redefined retail, not just in books but for almost everything. They are also in digital services such as AWS. The deep technology behind all of this is AI. They are the masters at using customer focused AI, as well as manage and scale their business. 

  1. Amazon’s retail business is one great recommendation engine. Their product recommendations are on all services, focused on the home page. Their interface is finely tuned and personalised using AI. Bezos was fanatical about having AI as the new UI to improve customer performance, first with one-click but then hundreds of other small adjustments and services. Fed by data from their massive customer base it is constantly improving.
  2. Amazon Prime’s interface is AI and data driven, tiled and personalised, as is Amazon Music. It uses collective and individual data to recommend what you may want to watch, as well as promote Prime as a service. 
  3. Amazon put AI into the home with Amazon Echo - Alexa. They created the home device sector with machine learning text to speech and speech to text in a consumer setting.
  4. The hidden hand of AI optimises logistics, storage, waste packaging and delivery, a massive worldwide distribution service. They are the masters of logistics. Computer imaging is used in product selection in their warehouses. Their logistics also includes forecasting product needs and supply through predictive AI software. 
  5. AWS delivers broad and deep and pre-trained AI and ML services to their IT customers, more than any other cloud offering. They are number one, delivering. Others are; Microsoft, Google, IBM and Oracle, Alibaba and Tencent. Most companies will obtain AI capabilities through cloud-based enterprise software. 
  6. AWS is optimised using AI and is 16% of Amazon business but delivers 41.5% of the cloud computing market -- greater than all of its competitors combined -- Microsoft Azure (29.4%), Google Cloud (3.0%).


AI is the heart that beats within Amazon, the core technology behind all of its services. It is what drives them forward, increasing customer growth through better service and lower prices, as well as dominate cloud computing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Apple's strategy for AI is around device improvement

Apple is fundamentally a device company and has been investing in artificial intelligence for some time but is not in the same game as Microsoft and Google when it comes to LLMs like ChatGTPx and Sparrow. 

They are more about improving the performance for the consumer, step-by-step on used devices, rather than launching AI as service products. This is all about increased value in the consumer market for hardware. Indeed their focus on the design and manufacture of their own AI chips has been relentless.

However, they have a strategy and artificial intelligence is embedded everywhere in their products:  

  1. Built their own A13 Bionic Chipset, now found in their devices, putting algorithmic power in the devices themselves, the fastest CPU and GPU embedded in a smartphone.
  2. Integrated AI into many of its products, such as face recognition on its iPhones.
  3. Using machine learning to improve the performance through image processing on its iPhone cameras. Their AI chips include, for example, an image processing feature known as ‘Deep Fusion’ which uses machine learning to improve low to medium light photography,
  4. Siri, the personal assistant for iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS uses AI to improve performance. It make Sirs pretty slick, especially on understanding prompts, recognising specific voices and translation.
  5. Heath apps such as exercise, sleep and dignostics use data and machine learning.
  6. Smart home devices will include AI, including face recognition on door cameras, that recognise who is at the door. 
  7. Hand washing countdown, digital car keys and many other real world tasks will be recognised through Apple devices.
  8. AI will be foundational in their AR glasses, rumoured to be released in 2023. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Microsoft launched ChatGPT-3, but Google also have a great hand, in fact they have a bird in the hand...

Microsoft are holding a lot of great cards in the AI game, especially ChatGPT-3, but Google also have a great hand, in fact they have a bird in the hand: 

Sparrow, from Deepmind, is likely to launch soon. Their aim is to trump ChatGPT by having a chatbot that is more useful and reduces the risk of unsafe and inappropriate answers. In the released paper, they also indicate that it will have moral constraints. Smart move.

Hassabis has promised some sort of release in 2023.
Their goal is to reduce wrong and invented information by linking it to Google Search and Scholar for citations. Stating the source(s) is important to overcome the nervousness people have about the validity of the content. It may also frighten those who see these tools as blowing up citation-based assessment and hey may have a solution to this problem.

Google’s goal is a more laid back goal to build on Google Tools such as Search and Scholar to deliver factually correct text. They also have Lamda, remember the chatbot that a Google developer thought was sentient? RanBran , is AI deeply embedded inside tier search engine and they have acquired well.

To achieve this they want to use a form of reinforcement learning (RL) based on people's actual feedback, to improve performance. This is clever as it can determine whether output is adequate, needs more or even a citation.They also stress test the system by getting humans to break the system.

They recognise that real dialogue with trustworthy answers, requires additional rules that constrain that dialogue. The quickest way to determine those rules is from real human judgements.

Of course, OpenAI will release with ChatGPT-4, a product that is several orders of magnitude bigger than Chat GPT-3. Google are old hands, have the processing power to deliver and may want the ChatGTP to take the heat, then release afterwards. The stakes are high. The winner adds billions in value.

#ai #google

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

7 reasons why Microsoft is winning the AI war

I have maintained for several years, including a book 'AI for Learning', that AI is the technology of the age and will change everything. This is unfolding as we speak but it is interesting to ask who the winners are likely to be.

The cigar goes to Microsoft. Google comes second... But first Microsoft: 

1. They were wise to pay $1billion for OpenAI in 2019 as that has already led to a massive multiple in value. The monetisation of these tools at volume is a certain winner and they have the computing power to deliver.

2. DALL-E now powers Bing Image Creator and is the start of something very big in images. This is starting to move towards the creation of video and 3D objects and worlds that gives edge in the Metaverse.

3. Then there's GPT functionality in Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, future proofing these office tools. This changes these from tools to powerful, generative job aids. It will help you write, design presentations and use spreadsheets with a significant increase in speed and quality.

4. Their ability to deliver via Teams is also possible. AI is already built into the platform. One can expect learning content to be one beneficiary.

5. They also own GitHub which has released the amazingly well received Copilot, increasing productivity in coding.

6. Valle also produces an AI voices. AI is the new UI.

7. Azure and associated services give them global and important edge computing delivery.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Ryan and Rigby - gamification and Self-Determination Theory


Ryan and Rigby

Richard M. Ryan, professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University and a research professor at the University of Rochester.and Rigby, founder of Immersyve Inc. provide a theory of gaming built upon ‘Self-Determination Theory’, developed by Ryan and Deci, the idea that specific, deep needs explain what we require to live fulfilling lives.

They applied Self-Determination Theory to explain that intrinsic motivation was the key to understanding the power of games and gamification. Gaming has become wildly popular globally, as it provided autonomous action, optimised learning and connections with peer groups. Gaming has been researched by them in detail and they provide a compelling account of why games are so popular.

Self-determination theory

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, put forward Self Determination Theory in their book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior (1985). It sees the active self, being in control, as the primary driver behind growth and fulfillment. It is essentially a theory of motivation, placing importance on intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation. It is your own need for growth that drives other personal needs. This means growing in competence as well as feeling related or connected to other people.

Self-determination theory has three components:

Autonomy - being in control, able to take action that results in actual change

Competence - learning knowledge and skills to achieve more autonomy

Connection or relatedness - feeling attached to other people

Gaming and SDT

It was this theory that Ryan and Rigby applied to games and gamification. Self Determination Theory (SDT) claims that autonomy, competence and relatedness are the three ways to true fulfillment and growth but are they also the reason why games are so popular?

They argue in The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach (2006) that gaming is fundamentally about meeting basic needs. Matching challenges to stretch abilities, optimal challenges, allow the gamer to progressively acquire competences, mastery through action, which they experience virtually. In Glued to Games (2011) they further suggest that superficial narratives are less important than these deeper psychological needs and experiences. 

Ryan and Rigby did four studies confirming that computer games offered autonomy within games and this was a key component in the enjoyment of the game. Competence was also studied and, as competence, in terms of knowledge and skills and achieved competences, manifested in actual performance up through levels in games, is a primary feature of gaming. Connection was also a strong feature in multiplayer games, a sense of being part of a team and wider community, within that one game, across all players of that game and the gaming community in general.

Rigby and Ryan studied actual motivations. consequences and game interventions. They claim that it is not the ‘content’ of games that matter but the feelings and achievements through playing the game. Unlike books, TV programmes and movies, it is not the narrative or story but the player interactions that matter. Game players get their satisfaction from the actions they take, not ‘fun’ as some assume. Hardcore gaming can be far from fun as game players will endure intense periods of effort, frustration, even disappointment but the satisfaction comes through the gameplay. This gameplay is the sense of control, achievement and relatedness to others (especially in multiplayer games). After playing, engagement in fan chat, videos and streaming, shows that the social side is very important. They go beyond the game to discuss, create and mod games.

All of this confirms their view that SDT explains the huge popularity and success of computer games. Rigby and Ryan give a solid explanation for the huge success of games, beyond mere entertainment, differentiating computer games from other media.

This has even more explanatory power in newer genres of games. Hundreds of millions play Fortnite, Minecraft or Roblox games because they give you the opportunity to create those games, confirming a strong sense of autonomy. You then succeed in killing, surviving, getting somewhere or gaining something, confirming your learned competences, in your own self but also in the eyes of others. The trajectory of a game is in the deep game design, in keeping you going with achievable challenges and satisfying these primal needs.

Gaming, learning and SDT

Note that SDT contains an important word - the acquisition of ‘competences’. This is central as one must feel good about gaining and exercising gained abilities in a range of different contexts. They provide a well-researched and sound basis for the power of games including the need to learn. Games gain their power, in a sense, by being learning experiences, becoming more competent, namely learning.

So, to learn best one must feel in control, set your own objectives, and also be in control oneself, whether playing a game or learning, sometimes both. How do you help people learn? You situate them in the context in which they will be autonomously motivated to learn and become more competent by overcoming difficulties and learning from failure, then connecting with your peer group within that multiplayer game, players of the game in general or gamers in general. 


Although this provides a general theory of learning, as well as an explanation as to why gaming and gamification may be useful in the delivery of learning, one must be careful in assuming this means games are always good in learning. Their focus on intrinsic, Self-Determination Theory, looks for deeper aspects of gamer motivation and games design, not superficial or simplistic fun.

Games may distract from actual learning by providing opportunities to learn how to play the game, rather than pick up required knowledge and skills. The rules and execution of the game mechanics may take up valuable cognitive load, thereby inhibiting useful learning.


SDT has influenced learning theory and those who see gaming as a useful way to deliver learning. Naruda sees it as important in framing a vision of the Metaverse providing a pull for meaningful activity in virtual worlds, satisfying deep and identified needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness.


Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C.S. and Przybylski, A., 2006. The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and emotion, 30(4), pp.344-360.

Przybylski, A.K., Rigby, C.S. and Ryan, R.M., 2010. A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of general psychology, 14(2), pp.154-166.

Rigby, S. and Ryan, R.M., 2011. Glued to games: How video games draw us in and hold us spellbound: How video games draw us in and hold us spellbound. AbC-CLIo.

Naruda, H. 2022 Virtual Society

Friday, August 12, 2022

Reality+.... minds will be blown

Reality + is a unique book from a unique thinker. David Chalmers made his name in philosophy, with Andy Clark, on seeing the mind or consciousness as extending further than we think – what many now know as Extended Reality. I included them both in my series of 200+ Learning Theorists.

Here, Chalmers tilts his lance at what most regard as fake knights, but is quixotic enough to see both windmills and knights as ‘real’. A modern Descartes he pushes us towards a view that every virtual world is a new reality – hence the title Reality+.

More than this, he thinks that such virtual worlds can be as good as the world we think we know. He takes his considerable conceptual sword to that other pub philosophy topic, whether what we are living in is a simulation. The results may surprise you.

This is not a casual read, philosophy never is, nor is it a short read at 462 pages. Nevertheless, it is a key text for anyone interested in the big ideas behind VR, AR, AI and the Metaverse. Another word of warning, a lot of it is counterintuitive, philosophy usually is but that is what makes it so exciting, so stick with it! The good news is that he is a good writer, way better (also philosopher) than Bostrom. He also lightens the saddle by bringing in science fiction, movies and games.

In presenting the idea that virtual minds are genuine minds, he takes us through a philosophical journey from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, through to Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill and Frege to more modern philosophy of Moore, Rawls, Nozick, Putnam, Dennett and Baudrillard, cutting deeply into problems such as ‘What is real?’ He doesn’t shy away from ethics, not the superficial twaddle one sees most of the time but actual moral philosophy.

This is a book that matters, as the time is right for a deeper philosophical text around these issues. It is not a book for the beach, it is a book that will make you think deeply about technology and what is about to become a reality.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Coffee and learning

What is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world? Coffee. 

Hardly surprising but what effect does it have on your performance, memory or in preventing demenitia and Alzheimers? Beyond this does it have any other benefits? What was and is its role in learning?


Coffee and memory

We are still not entirely clear about how it works on the brain but a paper this month suggests that regular coffee drinking improves the signal-to-noise ratio during information encoding, in other words it improves memory and therefore retention.


In fact, there is now lots of evidence that coffee improves short-term memory and reaction times by acting on the pre-frontal cortex. Researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, in a group of 15 volunteers given 100 mg of coffee, then scanned and tested, showed distinct improvements in memory in the caffeine fuelled group, "those who received caffeine had significantly greater activation in parts of the prefrontal lobe… These areas are involved in 'executive memory', attention, concentration, planning and monitoring."


A study from the University of Arizona, published a trial in Psychological Science, showed that in 40 participants, given 250 mg of coffee or decaffeinated coffee, the group that were given caffeine showed no decline in memory across the day in contrast to the decaffeinated group who showed significant decline.


In another French study researchers compared women aged 65 and older who drank more than three cups of coffee per day with those who drank one cup or less per day. Those who drank more caffeine showed less decline in memory tests over a four year period. The study, published in the journal of Neurology, raises the possibility that caffeine may also protect against the development of dementia.


Indeed, a trial from the University of Florida showing that coffee, more accurately caffeine, both prevents and reverses symptoms of Alzheimers in mice. Sure, mice trials don’t always transfer to humans, but these mice had the relevant human genes transferred. It suggests that caffeine both blocks and attacks the plaque that causes Alzheimers and memory loss. The University of Florida used 55 mice and gave one half doses of caffeine, similar to around five cups a day for humans, and the other half water. What was astonishing is that after two months the dementia mice had recovered their memories and were the same as the mice who showed no signs of dementia. The results were astonishing. What’s more, these mice had a 50% reduction in the beta-amyloid protein, which forms the plaque that causes brain dementia.


Coffee shops and learning

Since that first Yemeni goatherder observed his goats frolicking after eating coffee beans, coffee grew in popularity in the Middle East. It allowed Islamic Sufis to get through long nights of prayer and Islamic students found they could keep awake to recite and learn the Koran. The port of ‘Mocha’ eventually opened trade in the 16th century, through Constantinople, into Europe. As a habit of hospitality, it encouraged meeting socially and conversation, especially in an Ottoman Empire that did not drink alcohol.


Trade across the British Empire into the Levant, led to the first London coffee shop in 1652, right by the Royal Exchange. It was an immediate success and within ten years there were 83 coffee houses in London, fuelled by Puritan attitudes, where alcohol was frowned upon. By the late 17th century coffee shops charged a penny a cup and were called ‘penny universities’, as they were such powerful places of cross-disciplinary debate. Drinkers sat around one long table, so you sat next to and opposite people, which encouraged conversation. Pamphlets and newspapers were also available. By 1739, London had 551 coffee shops, many hives of intellectual and business activity. 


They became hothouses of political debate, which is why Charles II wanted to shut them down. Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop became Lloyds of London. Jonathon’s Coffee House in 1698 listed stock prices, which eventually became the London Stock Exchange. Similarly in New York, a coffee house became the New York Stock Exchange. Coffee houses were also seen as sharpening the wit. The Tatler (1709) and Spectator (1711) link the periodical with the coffee house, drawing content from that source. So we have then coffee stimulating thought and cultural output. Pepys goes to coffee house three or four times a day. Voltaire drank 40 cups a day!


Urban, corporate coffee chains, and now more artisanal small coffee shops, constitute a global revival. Starbucks and its imitators, picked up on the digital revolution, popular mobile laptop workers and students, offering free wifi. They have now become focal points for meetings and working. Many have people deep in thought, writing, coding, emailing and doing their jobs, stimulated by coffee and the general social environment of a warm and inviting place. WiFi in coffee shops has given them a real lease of life.


Quick and easy to make, with psychoactive qualities, coffee was also incorporated into the workplace, as a break from work but also a method of keeping awake and getting through the working day. At conferences we stop for coffee breaks, a social ritual which encourages social networking.


The drink of a coffee in the morning as a wake-up experience, then after meals to combat post-prandial lethargy, is now an established social ritual. Espressos, an Italian habit, came with the machine compression of water through coffee, making it quick. The in-out coffee culture developed because there was a tax on service, hence service at the bar, standing up.



Coffee has long fuelled learning, whether it be through the direct stimulation of the brain, increasing attention, improving memory, preventing dementia or providing a social context for debate and work. Coffee has more recently re-colonised the world, through a global coffee shop culture, in the workplace and at home. Fascinating drink, fascinating culture.