Saturday, April 17, 2021

Be heard and not seen… amazing rise of the podcast…

The rise of the podcast, let’s face it no one saw that coming. I knew it had arrived when I saw them being reviewed in the pages of the press. I, like hundreds of millions of others, am an addict. I blogged about users wanting to turn their cameras OFF during online learning. Podcasts provide ample evidence, that if it’s just talking heads, the camera of the teacher, lecturer or trainer can also, often be switched off. That’s why podcasts are so popular. Time and time again I hear people say they don't miss images and heads when ideas are being discussed and that they prefer the informality of a conversation or interview to a didactic presentation.

Purity of the podcast

The joy of a podcast is its purity. It doesn’t nag you with over-earnest graphic design. You’re alone with your thoughts and there’s space to think. Odd that it focuses you to focus by the absence of distracting images or talking heads. Not seeing their faces is a plus. It often adds little, can be distracting. It’s what they say that matters not what they look like. This fees the eyes and hands for other things, such as note taking. It’s a medium, not multimedia, that’s its strength. You have to make an effort, cognitive effort, to actively listen. It’s hard to be lazy when listening to a podcast, whereas you can sit back and let a video was over you. With audio you’re either in or out, there’s no half-way house. 


It a rebel medium, with lots of causes. As mainstream media becomes ever more homogenous, our attention has gone online and podcast are part of the counter-culture on the web. We had the YouTubers, now we have the podcasters, such as Joe Rogan and a massive array of funny, out-there podcasters breaking all the rules. Traditional media seems so formulaic, so hidebound, with a limited range of voices. Podcasts shatter that model. There’s no editor, little censorship. Swearing is not unusual, taboo subjects common. There is a sense of being on the edge, out there.


Podcasts may have had their precedents in radio but they are the child of a specific piece of technology. The portmanteau, podcast, comes from combining iPod and broadcast. It was coined by The Guardian columnist Ben Hammersley, in 2004 in a Guardian article. It’s ease of production and distribution, streamed or downloaded, means it can be used on almost any device, computer, smartphone or audio speaker.


Key to podcast culture is the ‘series’ with some sort of identity, the podcaster(s), theme or brand. On-demand streaming and downloading gave it legs. It’s a medium in itself and has spawned an entire global industry of platforms, sponsorship and audiences. They tend to be more personal, with a lead podcaster and interviewee(s), more informal that traditional broadcast media. Conversation is the aim, not a didactic talk. You’re talking with and to people not at them.


My favourite design principle for the design of learning (design in general) is Occam's Razor - the minimum number of entities to reach your goal... also useful in teaching and for learners. The podcast is an exemplar of this type of design thinking. Cognitively, give me things in the least cognitively loaded format. I’m happy with text if it’s just ideas, podcasts for just discussions, graphics if I need something illustrated visually, video for drama and its other genres. Don’t pack out screens or use media that is not matched to the learning content. Less is more.

Friday, April 16, 2021

AI revolutionises Higher Education in China Open. Huge project gets UNESCO Prize

After writing a book ‘AI for Learning’, I have given a lot of talks and podcasts on the need to use smart software to make people smarter. That means using the technology of the age – AI and data. In the book (p228), and in many of these talks, I explained how China is forging ahead with AI in this field. Unlike the West, China has focus, investment and a view that access to education needs to be cheaper, faster, smarter and with a massive increases in access. 

Meanwhile, we continue with a view that Higher Education needs to remain scarce and expensive, very expensive. We put more attention into AI and Ethics than real projects. Our Universities and colleges do little more than write reports on AI for learning. That’s a shame.

Meanwhile the Open University of China has been awarded a UNESCO Prize for its use of AI to empower rural learners. Their ‘One College Student Per Village’ is an ambitious and inspiring initiative that puts equitable access at the heart of their offer. This is all about improving access to education for the poor. Running since 2004, financed by the Chinese Ministry of Education to tackle access problems, it does far more than reach out with infrastructure. AI lies at the heart of their efforts to provide scalability.


In its efforts to provide quality learning experiences, the OUC set up over 500 cloud-based classrooms and smart classrooms in poorer areas in 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. The trick was to make the courses demand-led by asking what local people wanted and providing largely practical, vocational courses. They also built the courses to be accessible on mobile devices for farmers and those in rural professions and places. The numbers are impressive:

·      29 programmes (using AI) 

·      825,827 learners enrolled

·      529,321 graduated

·      1,500 OUC study centres

·      300 online courses

·      100,000 mini-lectures

·      all open to general public

AI for Learning

But the secret, sweet without the sour sauce, is AI. The learning is personalised using personal and aggregated data. This adaptive learning means that different students take different paths through the courses, a bit like the SatNav or GPS in your car, go off course, and it re-sequences content and provides feedback to get you back on course. I’ve been working with this for five years – believe me it works.

The really clever stuff is the use of AI to recognise text (text to speech), as well as semantic analysis of answers. This allows open input from students, as opposed to MCQs. I’ve also been working with this for some time in WildFire. This approach allows learners to answer or ask questions which are automatically recognised through semantic analysis, then feedback automatically provided by the system. This feedback (should really be called feedforward) is what oils the wheels of learning and provides real scalability. The immediate feedback with learning opportunities means that the system does not depend as much on human tutors. Semantic analysis of learner answers is something we’ve implemented. It is powerful and pedagogically superior to MCQs as it is more realistic, requires greater cognitive effort and can be more diagnostic for the purpose of feedback.

They also use AI for knowledge mapping, automatic content generation and smart chatbots for 24/7 online learner support. This use of AI for content creation is something we’ve been doing at WildFire. It reduces the cost of learning per student, as new content can be created quickly from documents, PowerPoints and videos. The point is to create content quickly, cheaply but using AI for semantic analysis and retrieval practice for high retention.

AI and assessment

The automation of assessment and essay marking is what allows them to scale sophisticated learning to so many people free from the tyranny of time, place and expensive human effort. Automating much of the assessment allows human tutors to focus on closing knowledge and skills gaps, rather than marking. As Li Ganged, a tutor at the OUC says, “Automated essay scoring is efficient in that I don’t have to mark these assignments myself but I can get a clear picture of where learners need help.” This idea of using AI to create assessments on all of your content at little extra cost is also something we've been doing using AI.


Another feature of this initiative, something our rigid system can’t really handle is the mix of programmes, degrees, diplomas and short courses. The focus on vocational training is also something we desperately need but underfund in favour of longer degree courses. We have to move beyond our sclerotic system of high cost content creation, high cost delivery and dependence on physical campuses. There’s too much at stake here for us to focus on education of the few at the expense of the many. Who would have thought that China is leading the way. They’ve just clocked up over 18% of economic growth but it’s not just about that, it’s the simple fact that they are leading the world in educational innovation.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Micro-videos; What are they? How to make them sticky? How to deliver? Good interface? How to make them?

What are they?

Micro-videos are short videos. How short? Often very short, 15 seconds on TIKTOK, Twitter at 2 mins max, up to 6 minutes or so at most. There is no absolute rule here but the research suggests that people duck out from learning video at around 6 minutes. The idea is to be short, to avoid cognitive overload, be hard-hitting, increase retention and deliver relevant learning. The learning world has picked up on YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. It’s not hard to find good examples.

How to make ‘em stick?

You can try too hard here, with too much animation, sound effects and noise. This is learning. Learning is not a circus and we are not clowns. It is important to match the style to the content. Drama works for behavioural and attitudinal shift. In fact video’s primary strength is in motivation, attitudes and behaviour. It is not so hot on knowledge, and conceptual learning. The transience effect means you quickly forget detail on video, like a shooting star your 20 second attention span means the knowledge burns up behind you, and you forget. Think back to the last three series Box-set you watched. How much do you really remember? But you walk away with the ‘gist’ of things – impressions. Think of a micro-video, not as the primary learning event but the trigger or catalyst for further learning.

Some tricks to make ‘em stick? Here’s six starters…

Surprise with a question, counterintuitive point or dramatic statement. First impressions matter… don’t do a learning objective!

Take it slow. Learning needs attention and the mind needs time to digest ideas. Play it a little slower than they do in the movies.

Summarise at the end. Learning is a process and not an event so summarise points at the end.

Calls to action. Make them go off and DO something, then report back on what they did and what they found easy and difficult.

Leave them hanging… that’s what a good video TV series will do… want you to come back for more…

Follow up with some active learning using the narration from the video. We do this with WildFire, where AI creates the content.

In a sense, video is rarely ever enough. It needs to be supplemented by more active learning. It tends to give the illusion of learning.

How do you deliver them?

Most people will have a LMS/VLE. But this may be the most unsatisfactory method of delivery, as they are largely repositories, not designed for sophisticated delivery. That’s where an LXP (Learning eXperience Platform) scores better, where you can pull and push micro-videos to and from learners in the workflow. Learning I a process not an event. Emails can be just as powerful. I’ve seen some great examples of 90 second videos delivered by email, which is still a popular and powerful communications tool in organisations. Remember also, that YouTube and Vimeo are literally learning platforms, with tools for privacy, editing and transcription. Use them. You may also want to consider analytics. YouTube and Vimeo work, as will your LMS or LXP. Just decide what data you want up front and what you want to do with it. Dashboards don’t make decisions, you do.

What’s a good interface?

An interface that has emerged as dominant is the Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Prime interface, with its tiles, horizontal scrolling for more, vertical scrolling for themes, along with search, maybe a 'playlist' or 'what’s new'. This makes great use of limited screen real estate and, above all, is now familiar to almost everyone on the planet. Never underestimate the power of search, especially deep search, into the narration and detailed content of videos. Mobile’s different. Instagram and TikTok are the masters there.

How do you make them?

Take your smartphone and record. It’s really that simple. You can also record in Powerpoint with those slide images. For more complex stuff there’s tools like Vyond, Powtoon, Vlognow, Adobe Animate, Articulate replay, Storyblocks – a ton of them. Although I’m not a great fan of animated, cartoony stuff. I often think it would be better in a single image, like an infographic. There’s Captivate and other similar tools for capturing ‘how to’ software tasks. Remember some simple rules about framing. It’s all in the eyes, so go for close-ups in learning. If you’re showing how to do something, shoot first-person not third person i.e. put the learner in the shoes of the doer.


Micro-videos are coming of age, the result of their popularity on consumer devices, platforms and social media. But remember that learning is not entertainment. Learning micro-videos need to be made with learning in mind. If it’s edutainment you want, beware of too much ‘tainment' and not enough ‘edu’. That’s the big mistake. For a much deeper look at the research on video for learning click here.

AI: America innovates, China implements, EU regulates... where does that leave the UK?

America innovates, China implements, EU regulates 

The EU's AI obsession is regulation. That's fine and I have little criticism of the direction of such regulation, part from the usual bureaucracy. What I do find depressing is the dampening effect this has on actual effort. Thankfully our own little UK 'AI and Ethics' group was more like a Parish Council, a rather amateurish academic attempt to tell companies how to run their business by people who don't know much about business. It amounted to little more than a rather dull checklist. This is good news as it remains unknown and largely ignored. AI is not as good as you think it is and not as bad as you fear.

In AI for Learning in Higher Education, we have several world class companies in the UK. One has received a seven figure investment from a US University but has literally zero UK customers. Our effort in this area is largely third rate AI and Ethics commentators. In AI itself, however, we have a ton of talent.


Where does this leave the UK? We should diverge from the EU here. In fact, we already have, Deepmind and other AI companies in the UK looked to the US, not Europe or China for investment and markets. Similarly in my own field, AI for Learning. There is little UK-EU commercial or M&A activity. It is almost all UK-US. We need to stay innovative and look to those countries not obsessed by negativity around AI and Ethics to move forward.

The investment community in London and US is well connected and most fo the deals are on that axis. This has increased post-Brexit, with even more alignment. The EU is linguistically diverse and much messier in terms of marketing and implementation. few companies see the EU as their target market, preferring the much bigger US market, which more aligned linguistically, culturally and financially.


China has made the investment and is actually forging ahead with AI for Learning. I've written about this here. They have a strategic view, with huge government targets and investments, that is markedly different from the EU. We have already seen the emergence of large-scale projects in schools and Universities. On the other hand, their attitude towards social scoring and surveillance technology leaves them open to criticism.

Appendix - EU legislation

As I say, the proposed EU legislation is OK and has been leaked (probably deliberately). It is, as expected, bureaucratic with lots of quangos being set up and a typical piece of EU overkill. Some of it, however, is eminently sensible and Google and others have been asking for this for some time. This is the right level for such discussions, if it is aligned with other efforts from IEEE and so on.

To summarise:

1.     Yet another Board! European Artificial Intelligence Board (one for each of the EU27 countries, a representative of the Commission & European Data Protection Supervisor)

2.     Digital Hubs and Testing Facilities to be set up

3.     Member states need inspection bodies for assessment and certification (3rd parties for 5 years)

4.     High risk AI systems tested before release

5.     High risk is, for example, face recognition for physical safety decisions in healthcare, transport or energy

6.     Authorisation for use of biometric identification in public domain

7.     Rules on exploitation of data

8.     Manipulation of human behaviour (to people’s detriment)

9.     Prevents mass surveillance

10.  Disclosure for deep fakes

11.  Voice agents cannot pretend to be human

12.  Emotion recognition has to be made explicit to user

13.  Ban ranking social behaviour (as in China)

14.  Self-assessment requirements for AI used for the purpose of determining access or assigning persons to educational and vocational training institutions

15.  Fines on a GDPR scale

16.  Aim is to prevent abuses with sizeable fines up to 4% global revenue 

17.  Notable exceptions for military and safeguarding public security

18.  SMEs to get privileged access

19.  Exemptions for training data 

20.  Notable get outs for member states (national security worries)

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Monkey plays computer game by mind control, mediated by AI. Here’s 10 implications for learning…

Pager is a macaque. He will go down in history as one of the first sentient beings to play a computer game just by thinking. He was trained to play ‘pong’ using a joystick, which is fascinating in itself. Then when the joystick was unplugged, he played by THOUGHT ALONE.

I wrote about this in my book ‘AI for Learning’.

So what are the possibilities for learning?

1. Invisible interface

First there is the promise of the brain interacting with the world without speech or movement. Our fingers are slow input devices, even speech is slow. Imagine being able to conjure up answers, have a dialogue, practice a language and engage with learning experiences without the messiness of an interface. The invisible interface eliminates all of that packing away at screens and keyboards. 

When reading and writing from and to the brain, you don’t want to damage anything and you need precise control over a range of electric fields in both time and space, also delivering a wide range of currents to different parts of the brain. The device uses Bluetooth to and from your smartphone. Indeed, it is the mass production of smartphone chips and sensors that have made this breakthrough possible. The smartphone may in the end be merely a bridge to its own obsolescence.

Our current interfaces, keyboards, touchscreen, gestures and voice, could also be bypassed, giving much faster thought ‘to and from machine’ by tapping into the phonological loop. This is an altogether different form of interface, more akin to VR. Consciousness is a reconstructed representation of reality anyway and these new interfaces would be much more experiential as forms of consciousness, not just language. Note that Pager is not executing imagined speech but actions.

2. Reducing cognitive load

This invisible interface feature alone will save immense amounts of cognitive effort, thereby reducing cognitive load. This matters, as cognitive load, is a rate limiting step in learning. To give but one example, when we watch video to learn, we have a 20 second period of attention and can hold only 2-4 things in our head at any one time. This means that this learning experience is largely one of forgetting. We get the illusion of learning, we feel as though we’re learning but, like a shooting star, our memories burn up behind us. Unfortunately, this transience effect, severely limits what we learn from video. In fact, this problem of overload is common to most learning.

Eliminating the need to learn how to use an interface, recognise icons and manipulate things to increase the limited screen real-estate, means that much of our cognitive effort, the key to learning, is wasted. We’re so busy, scanning, clicking, scrolling and manipulating the interface, that it harms learning. UX design will disappear into understanding the psychology of learning not the ergonomics of screens.

3. Accelerated learning

Learning is a relatively permanent change to long-term memory. If we can use AI, as they do I this experiment, to read data from our minds, then good pedagogy can be applied. Immediate feedback to propel the learner forward. Feedback should be renamed feedforward, as its purpose is to accelerate learning. Fast, personalised feedback, can be provided on the basis of what we are thinking. All sorts of other AI and data-driven techniques, which I examine in my book ‘AI for Learning’, come into play – personalised, adaptive, deep search, chatbots, nudge learning, learning on the flow of work. This advance unlocks many other uses of AI for learning.

It doesn’t end there. This experiment shows something that we knew already, that mental rehearsal, leads to learning. Note that the Neuralink system captures what Pager learns, calibrates it using AI, then uses that to do what pager wants without any physical interface. They read Pager’s mind, literally intentions, in realtime to predict what Pager wants to do.

It’s the decoding of Pager’s brain signals that are being used here. This is not just about the fibre implants. It is the AI decoded data that does the smart work. You simply imagine something then the computer knows what you are thinking. These intentions can spark of actions anywhere on a network. For example, implants on the legs of paraplegics, allowing them to walk. More commonly, anyone could use a smartphone mentally, faster than anyone using it physically.

4. Insights on learning

At the very least this will give us insights into the way the brain works. We can ‘read’ the brain more precisely but also experiment to prove/disprove hypotheses on memory and learning. This will take a lot more than just reading ‘spikes’ (electrical impulses from one neuron to many) but it is a huge leap in terms of an affordable window into the brain. If we unlock memory formation, we have the key to efficient learning.

5. Read memories

Memories are of many types and complex, distributed phenomena in the brain. Musk talked eloquently about being able to read memories, that means they can be stored for later retrieval. Imagine having cherished memories stored to be later experienced, like your wedding photos, only as felt conscious events, like episodic memories. There are conceptual problems with this, as memory is a reconstructive event, but at least these reconstructions could be read for later retrieval. At the wilder end of speculation Musk imagined that you could ‘read’ your entire brain, with all of its memories, store this and implant in another device. 

6. Write memories

Reading memories is one thing. Imagine being able to ‘write’ memories to the brain. That is, essentially learning, especially if they bypass the limitations of working memory. If we can do this, we can accelerate learning. This would be a massive leap for our species. Learning is a slow and laborious process. It takes 20 years or more before we become functioning members of society, even then we forget much of what we were taught and learned. Our brains are seriously hindered by the limited bandwidth and processing power of our working memory. We are easily distracted, get demotivated, can’t upload, download and sleep for one third of our lives. Overcoming those blocks, by direct writing to the brain, would allow much faster learning. Could we eliminate great tranches of boring schooling? Such reading and writing of memories would, of course, be encrypted for privacy. You wouldn’t want your brain hacked!

7. Imagination

This is not just about memories. It is our faculty of the imagination that drives us as a species forward, whether in mathematics, AI and science but also in art and creativity. Think of the possibilities in music and other art forms, the opportunities around the creative process, where we can have imagination prostheses.

8. Consciousness

In my book I talk about the philosophical discussion around extended consciousness and cognition. Some think the internet and personal devices like smartphones have already extended cognition. The Neuralink team are keenly aware that they may have opened up a window on the mind that may ultimately solve the hard problem of consciousness, something that has puzzled us for thousands of years. If we can really identify correlates between what we think in consciousness and what is happening in the brain and can even simulate and create consciousness, we are well on the way to solving that problem.

9. End to suffering

But the real long-term win here, is the opportunity to limit suffering, pain, physical disabilities, autism, learning difficulties and many forms of mental illness. It may also be able to read electrical and chemical signals for other diseases, leading to their prevention. This is only the beginning, like the first transistor or telephone call. It is a scalable solution and as versions roll out with more channels, better interpretation using AI, in more areas of the brain, there are endless possibilities. This event was, for me, more important than man landing on the moon as it has its focus, not on grand gestures and political showmanship, but on reducing human suffering. That is a far more noble goal. It is about time we stopped obsessing with the ethics of AI, with endless dystopian navel gazing, to recognise that it has revolutionary possibilities in the reduction of suffering.

10. Neural interfaces are here

Musk showed three little piggies in pens, one without an implant, one that had an implant, now removed without any effects and one with an implant (they showed the signal live). Using a robot as surgeon the Neuralink tech can be inserted in an hour, without a general anaesthetic and you can be out of hospital the same day. The coin size device is inserted in the skull, beneath the skull. Its fibres are only 5 microns in diameter (a human hair is 100 microns) and it has ten times the channels of the Utah array, with a megabit bandwidth rate, to and from your smartphone. All channels are read and write.

From a pig in 2000 to playing a computer game in realtime in 2001. AI, robotics, physics, material science, medicine and biology collided in a Big Bang event, where we saw an affordable device that can be inserted into your brain to solve important spinal and brain problems. By problems they meant memory loss, hearing loss, blindness, paralysis, extreme pain, seizures, strokes and brain damage. They also included mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and addiction. Ultimately, I have no doubt that this will lead to huge decrease in human suffering. God doesn’t seem to have solved the problem of human suffering, we as a species, through science are on the brink of doing it by and for ourselves.

Other companies are working on other neural interfaces. One promising line is a brain interface from a stent in a brain blood vessel, a stentrode. This is easily inserted, gets incorporated into tissue. 

Tech for good...

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Disabling video may be better for online teaching and collaboration

It is often assumed that online collaboration, teamwork and communications is inferior to face-to-face equivalents as we miss the visual cues, facial expressions, body language and so on. This would suggest that collaborative teamwork or meetings may be better with VIDEO ON, as opposed to JUST AUDIO.

Yet, this fascinating paper from Tomprou et al. (2021) at Carnegie Mellon, who looked at group ability to solve a range of different problems, found something quite counterintuitive. Visual cues have no effect on collaborative work. In fact, teams without visual presence were more successful, not only in synchronising their vocal cues but also speaking in turns and solving problems. The authors rightly claim that this calls into doubt the conventional wisdom that you need video support.

So it may be worth disabling video during Zoom, Teams or Google meetings and teaching, as audio cues seem to be better than visual cues for synchronising and turn taking. Taking 198 people, in 99 pairs, doing 30 minute sessions and six tasks, they found that video dampened or impaired then ability to speak in turns and get the problems solved. One could argue that pairs are not groups but my suspicion is that the effect would be worse in groups, where the exchanges are more complex.

I have long argued that the talking head is often superfluous in recorded lectures, apart from very specific instances, such as introducing oneself or for specific social purposes. When teaching mathematics, indeed any subject, the idea that the teacher's head needs to be on the screen is, I think, simply a carryover from the classroom. Khan Academy has taken this approach for 15 years, across a range of subjects and it remains their model. Yet most online teaching during Covid rushed to the talking head approach, such as Oak Academy in the UK. You also save a ton of bandwidth, making comms more reliable - less screen freezing.

The astounding rise and popularity of podcasts adds to the case. In discussions on abstract topics, we seem to enjoy the absence of the visual, talking head. It allows us to take an almost intimate role in the conversation, as if we were there in the group. It leaves the mind to focus on the arguments and frees our imaginations to reflect and understand. It also reduces cognitive load for novices, a major inhibitor in learning.

The paper suggests that in online learning, we’d be better off leaving our videos muted. I think there may be an arguments for leaving the chair, tutor or teachers image on, but this is, nevertheless fascinating.

Maha Bali claims that her students and students of other teachers from K12 and Higher Education, repeatedly claim they prefer cameras off. She reports they felt self-conscious, anxious about their surroundings and uncomfortable. Others reported the cost and induced unreliability of their Internet connection when video was on. Some felt it was simply an expression of authority, surveillance and even punitive. She reports long 3 hours lectures where the lecturer demanded the camera was on, threats to reduce grades even recorded as being absent. An alternative can be a photo of the student and their name.  

Engineering students, where there was no discussion, as it was largely maths, felt that cameras were completely unnecessary. The assumption that there even is a social component to the learning is, of course, open to question. She also reports students being comfortable with audio and text chat only, as they were affair with those modes of technology. What is interesting here, is the mismatch between faculty and students in terms of expectation of technology.

Teachers having video on is very different. Even there it is not a golden rule. 

Other evidence for changing the way we see video used in learning here.

Note that this and many other design issues will be included in my forthcoming book. Learning eXperience Design, published later in the year.

Tomprou M, Kim YJ, Chikersal P, Woolley AW, Dabbish LA (2021) Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247655.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Education not a universal ‘good’

In the British Library yesterday, I spent a few hours in their superb Taking Liberties exhibition which had a section on the clash between religious belief and freedom of speech. Iwent upstairs to see their collection of early Bibles, Korans and Torahs, one of the best collections of early books in the world. It set me thinking. Books such as Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Mill’s On Liberty and Paine’s The Rights of Man have led to a largely secular view of rights and liberties. I can’t say the same for the Bible, Torah and Koran. 

Education is usually seen as a universal ‘good’. But recent world events suggest that education is not necessarily a ‘good’ in itself, and may in fact, be a horrifically destructive force. An educational battle of titanic proportions is taking place in many parts of the world. It is rarely discussed but continues to have a profound effect on world history. I’m talking about the impact of fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian teaching and methods on the minds young people in theist schools, using religious texts as the ultimate authority. Education, as practiced in fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian places of learning are, in my view, damaging, leading to intolerance and political conflict. Interestingly, in all three there is a similar focus on the powerful recitation and repeated readings of a basic book. This, the three Abrahamic religions have in common. We needn’t be surprised at this, since the three religions are entwined with each other through their books. The Torah, five books of Moses, are included in the expanded Old Testament of the Christians and The Koran draws from the Torah, regarding it as the word of Allah given to Moses. The Koran refers to Mohammed as the prophet mentioned in the Torah.
What I’m saying here is that the educational power of recitation, repetition and memorisation is massively effective and therefore massively limiting and destructive in terms of critical thinking and tolerance. Education without critical thinking has immense destructive power.

Islamic education – conviction and recitation 
Koran means ‘recitation’. In Islamic teaching, everything stems from the pages of this one book. It was meant to be read aloud to promote recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the unshiftable, dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief. In short, it is an educational recipe for dogmatic fanaticism.

It is impressive and common to witness the devotional prayers in Muslim countries, from mass attendances in Mosques to single musilms praying on any available spot. It’s a five times a day ritual, but worrying to think that this lifelong example of spaced practice, may squeeze out learning that is incompatible with the precepts of the Koran. It is an example of successful learning that, in itself can prevent further learning. Wherever I go in the Islamic world I see the rise of religious and regressive educational systems. Education is gradually becoming politicised by active religious believers, and inept and ineffective governments. The educated elite continue to educate their children abroad, while populations turn to religious schools that encourage conformity, not critical analysis.

The teaching in fundamentalist Islamic schools teaches that God passed his thoughts through the archangel Gabriel directly to the illiterate Mohammed over a period of years, as the final prophet to mankind, the final expression of God’s will. It is a text ridden with the primitive beliefs of its age and, at times, downright primitive in its prescriptions against women and non-believers.

Philip Hitti’s classic the History of the Arabs has an excellent chapter on the history of Islamic education. Schools were, and are going back to becoming adjuncts of the Mosque with the entire curriculum being base on the Koran. Memory work is particularly emphasised. Even today there are high rewards for children who manage to memorise the Koran. Interestingly, the teacher was not highly regarded in Islamic history, often a low status figure, even figure of fun. More recently we have seen the massive increase in the number of schools that are primarily religious. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas are often the only organisations to provide adequate education for the poor, as the governments are often too corrupt and uncaring to do it properly.

Jewish education – chosen conviction 
Torah means ‘teaching’, ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’. Its 613 commandments, split into 365 negative and 248 positive moral imperatives. Again, like the Koran, it is believed to have been written by divine revelation, this time by Moses. Reading the Torah aloud is central to Jewish ritual. As with Islam and the Koran, the repeated and cyclical recitation leads to deeply processed knowledge and beliefs. Orthodox believers take every word literally, something they have in common with Islamic fundamentalist believers. There is a deep split in Israel between orthodox and other schools and a battle currently raging to defend religious Torah-based schools. Half of all students in Jerusalem attend ultra-Orthodox ‘heredi’ schools. 70% of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work as it interferes with their religious studies. This is a group that, like their Islamic and fundamentalist Christian believers abhor homosexuality and have been known to attack women who they deem to be improperly dressed. Unlike most secular countries, this religious power reaches right up into government, especially in the settler communities. The majority of the illegal settler communities are ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionists, all driven by the belief that their land rights are given by God, as if he were some sort of racially motivated real estate agent. Land ownership is not a covenant from God.

The problems in the Middle East focus on Israel and peace agreements are almost impossible to complete because of the extremists on both sides. If you’ve ever travelled in Israel you will have experienced the aloofness ultra-orthodox Jews. That’s fine. I have no problem with people doing their own thing, but when it comes to illegal settlements, stealing other people’s land, bulldozing their properties and bombing them into submission with tanks and artillery, on the grounds that ‘God gave them the right’, it is downright obscene. Religious learning results in convictions about land occupation that has resulted in millions spending their entire lives in refugee camps.

Christian education – Christ and conviction 
It may now be possible to become President of the USA if you’re black, brown, yellow or a woman. But if you don’t believe in God, or more particularly, you’re not a Christian – forget it. It will be interesting to observe whether Obama dares to avoid using explicitly Christian language in his inauguration speech.
Fundamentalist Christian education is on the rise and it’s squeezing into our schools through anti-evolution, homophobic, anti stem-cell research, pro-life stances that take us backwards not forwards. We’ve had a Bush presidency that has been arguably the worst in US history, sure of their religious supremacy to the level of waging war on those who don’t. Its disdain for international law, the legitimisation of torture and hostility towards the United Nations, was, in part, driven by fundamentalist religious believers.

American has recently been, in many ways, a theocracy. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips warned in 2006 of Bush’s preacher-ridden, debt-bloated regime, if left unchecked, would become untenable. Boy did he get than one right! At the core of the Bush regime is militant religion, a growing fundamentalist and evangelical movement that has waged a ‘thinly disguised US crusade against radical Islam’. Its megachurches, televangelism and the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is affiliated with a conservative Protestant church.

Things are a little different in the more secular Europe, but in the UK, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the existence of segregated schools continues to generate antagonistic values that have led to decades of murders and bombings. Then there was the horrors of the Balkans.

NOT Islamophobia, Anti-semitism or Anti-Christian 
This is not an exercise in Islamophobia, anti-semitism or anti-Christian. In fact the most extreme forms of these phenomena come from each of the sets of three fundamentalists attacking each other, not secular groups. I have spend more time travelling in Islamic countries and love the art, architecture, cultures and people. What I don’t admire is the crippling effect of fundamentalist education. At its worst they kill school teachers and deny girls and women the basic right to education, but even at the moderate level it seems to deaden real inquiry and critical thinking. The fundamentalists may win because they understand that education is the key to long-term success. This is the clear strategy of the smarter political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas. They, in turn, are reacting to the hideous beliefs of Jewish settlers who stole their land and confine them to fenced in camps. I have also been to Israel and witnessed the brutality of an occupying force towards people in Gaza and the West bank, people who did little more than resist when the land they had occupied for centuries was stolen. Fundamentalist Judaism is frighteningly racist. My experience in the US is perhaps greater than that of the other two. I studied at a US Ivy League university, worked there and have travelled there more times than I can remember, over a period of thirty years. The televangelism, megachurches and obsessions with homophobia, abortion and creationism, still shock me. US fundamentalists funded and supported Bush in his maniacal support of Israel and firestorms in the Middle East. Let’s hope that Obama keeps his ambiguous religious beliefs out of politics. 

To conclude..... 
Any school or teacher who professes belief in the literal truth ofreligious texts, revealed through divine revelation, is in my view, a danger. I believe in secular education and don’t like religious schools in any guise. I was brought up in a highly divided society in Scotland, where segregated schools are still the norm, much to Scotland’s shame. Watching today's events in Gaza is even more depressing and the US abstaining on the UN resolution, perhaps the last evil last gasp from Bush's cronies a matter of deep shame. Keep education secular.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why is ‘AI and Ethics’ work mostly a waste of time? It’s rife with amateurism in ‘ethics’, confirmation bias, anthropomorphism and activism.

I run an AI company, have invested in AI companies, taught the application of AI in my field, give talks and podcasts on the subject and have written a book on the subject. Yet, most of the questions I get on AI and data are what people see as ‘ethical’ issues. The problem is that they’re mostly not.

Actual ethics

There is little in the way of actual ethics among those in this field. Questions about what moral philosophy is being brought to the table is met with blank stares. Ethics has been a serious philosophical subject since the Greeks. From Plato’s Socractic dialogues on the nature of ‘good’ and Aristotle’s Ethics through to Hume and Kant’s brakes on the application of reason in the ethical sphere, the subject has a long pedigree. Yet how may could state the difference between the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative? Then on into Utilitarianism. For all the talk about happiness and well-being, few realise that this debate was covered intensely by Bentham, Mill and many others. Ethics is a subject of depth and importance, yet many have little interest or background in the subject, the very subject in which they profess to be ‘experts’.

Design issues

Many so-called ethical issues are simply design issues. Stephen Pinker and others have identified the psychology behind this confusion of design with ethics. Many issues are quite simply glitches in the development of AI solutions. As AI uses data to learn, you have to literally ‘train’ models with data, selected or more general, it makes mistakes, a bit like a child saying sheeps for the plural of a sheep. An algorithm may well confuse x with Y but it has no comprehension that it has. More importantly, the elimination of mistakes or known problems, like overfitting, are well known and a huge amount of effort goes into trying to reduce the errors. This is why we see AI solutions improve, sometimes dramatically over time. My Alexa voice recognition struggled with my Scottish accent at first, it no longer does. We must not confuse ethics with design. On the grander scale, this is why many, such as Pinker, think that AI as an existential threat to our species is wrong-headed. We simply engineer it not to be. The chances of it doing it on its own and next to nil, as there are and will be ample opportunities to stop it happening. Let’s identify these design issues first before we get into a complete tiz over ethical concerns.


Anthropomorphism, the reading of human qualities into non-human entities is rife in this field. The commonest mistake being the false attribution of responsibilities, which we see in often silly discussions about robots. In truth all AI is competence without comprehension. It can perform wonderfully well and beat you at checkers, chess, GO, poker and many computer games, even outperform you on identifying tumours on scans and some levels of decision making. It automates much of what we used to do but that does not mean it is us or even like us. Reading ethical qualities into software is not the point. Nass and reeves researched this anthropomorphism decades ago. Computers, in particular, seem to draw it out of people.

Confirmation bias

Many of the accusations of bias in AI are driven by negativity and confirmation bias in the accusers. So keen are they to blame things, often because their research grant or organisation expects it, that they look for ethical problems in the wrong place, in the technology or identity group they don’t like, rather than looking for solutions to that problem, the first port of call is misallocated blame. Then there’s the negativity bias. AI is tech, it’s new, so it must be problematic. In general, there are potboilers such as Weapons of Math destruction and umpteen ‘best-sellers’ that are thin as prison gruel, yet grab the attention of the lazy reader. Negativity sells.


Rather than the application of ‘ethics’ which is the study of moral principles, what is good and bad, AI and Ethics seems to have quietly dropped the moral and good side. It is cyclopic in its focus on the bad. This is not ethics, it is activism. People have beefs, often centred in identity politics or political stances around ‘capitalism’ and go for the tech, like predators after prey. This is by far the worst form of imbalanced, subjective politicking. Yet it is common in the one place that should pride itself in objectivity – our universities.

Leave it to the experts

No one denies that there are ethical issues around AI and data. All tech is of ethical concern. Cars kill 1.5 million a year in horrible and mangled deaths, many more injured, the equivalent of a World War every year. Yet we don’t have much attention paid to it as a global moral concern. Yet of a hand sanitizer is poorly calibrated, we cry racism. In fact, there is plenty of attention and effort going into the ethical concerns around this technology, by the EU, IEE and others. We need quality not quantity, or as Russell says in his excellent Human Compatible, whereas what we have at the moment is every man, woman, uncle auntie and their dog on the case. The issues are highly technical, ethical, legal and practical. You need a multi-disciplinary approach, not thinly disguised activism.

We have a model here in healthcare. Pharmaceuticals are highly regulated. You must be able to prove efficacy and safety. Strict rules apply to what you can claim for your product. That is fair. Note that many drugs have proven efficacy and safety without knowing exactly how they work. The focus is on the outputs, not full transparency. One need only apply this to cases where AI could do harm. Many are quite benign and will need little of no regulation.


The problems here are plentiful. First, it may stop good things from happening. The atmosphere in some areas of academe are so extreme that it is putting a brake on good research and outcomes in health and many other areas of human endeavour. Second, it distracts from actually coming up with solutions. So much efforts is put into diagnosis of sometimes imaginary illnesses that little is done on finding cures. Third, much of it is a waste of money with huge amounts of duplication, shallow work and outcomes that fall still born from the press. Much is quite simply a waste of time. Forth, there is a tendency to what to throw babies out with the bathwater, even the baths themselves. Just bear in mind that AI is not as good as we think nor as bad as we fear.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Starlink changes everything. It may be the most important form of learning technology of the century

I was out in my garden in May last year, watching a stream of satellites pass in a line overhead. It was beautiful. Starlink changes everything. In online learning it absolutely changes everything. A global network of satellites delivering high speed broadband means that anyone, anywhere in the world can get high-speed broadband.

How does it work?

There are over 1000 satellites up already. Target is 2027 for thousands more satellites. Why so many? Well, each has a small cone of coverage but it cuts latency. Lasers between satellites travel at the speed of light. This is much faster than optical delivery through cable and allows global distribution with very low latency. Note that this will not wipe out urban networks but is great for rural and low density markets. If you are worried about space debris, their satellites have propulsion, collision software and can be dropped to disintegrate when they come to the end of their life.

What does it cost?

Prices at the moment are £89 plus £439 for the dish and speeds at 50-150mbs. However, speeds will soon double and prices will fall. It has over 10,000 users in its US beta program and is also delivering services to users in the UK. You can sign up right now.

How did we get here?

It’s less than 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web in 1991. There was no broadband 20 years ago from today. It started in the UK on 31 March 2000 and for years it was kilobits then just 2megabits by 2005. 50 megabits was introduced in 2008, 100 by 2010. This was an amazing achievement and has revolutionised play, work and learning.

1G networks were the first, 2G networks added data for things like SMS messages, 3G internet added even more and 4G, what we currently use, much faster internet access that has enabled social media and streaming. With every gear change comes faster and more efficient delivery. 5G delivers much, much higher speed and bandwidth. 4G caps out at 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G caps out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is x100 faster than 4G technology, theoretically at least. 

But what does this Starlink move mean? 

To be honest, this is not really about 5G. Starlink is more important than 5G. It allows us to work and learn anywhere. It will allow people to move out of cities. High bandwidth, low latency, reliable internet will change how we work and learn. Its timing is perfect with respect to Covid. Now that we've been through the Great Pause and learnt to work and learn more at home, Starlink accelerates this process.

Rural business

First, It’s a great leveller. It delivers high-speed broadband to all rural areas, allowing work to migrate out of the cities, also boosting local businesses. Broadband will. No longer be an urban thing. This is in line with the political demands in countries where populations have voted for less globalisations and urbanisation, in favour for a more geographically, equal distribution of wealth. SpaceX had to reach certain delivery speeds in order to participate in the Federal Communication Commission's up to $16bn Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. 

Developing world benefits

More than this, it allows broadband to be delivered to anywhere on the planet. This include the whole of the developing world. This is mind-boggling and may free up the talent in those economies, bringing them into the fold. Anyone can produce anything and sell their talents online. The local becomes global.

Global online learning

Post-Covid, the world will undoubtedly have taken a shift towards online learning in schools, colleges, Universities and the workplace. Forget the conspiracy theories, 5G wireless technology stands for ‘fifth generation’ cellular technology. Tie this up with Starlink, a low earth orbit network of satellites delivering blistering speeds to everywhere in the world and the engine that is AI, and we have a perfect storm that will transform global, online learning.

SpaceX's satellite internet system will offer still blazingly fast speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. It will offer satellite internet to the entire planet, including remote locations where internet isn't currently available. Its satellites are low enough, and move (not geostationary), to deliver this with no blindspots. That’s an astounding leap. A couple of orders of magnitude better and global coverage. In terms of delivery and the user experience in online learning, this means a lot. In short, we can get online. learning anywhere.

Ultra low latency

We spend a lot of time watching that little circle spinning on our screens. Technically it’s called latency, the time taken to find, identify and transfer data. 5G will make this all but disappear. This matters when you’re delivering complex online learning, whether it’s video, simulations, AI, VR or AR.

The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work. But their research also supports the case for 5G. 35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes online learning work.

Why is this relevant to 5G? Well in real life we live in real time. We don’t encounter little spinning circles, except when waiting on a late train or in a queue, and who wants that? Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the real world and the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.

The spell is easily broken. Nass & Reeves showed that unnatural ‘pauses’ inhibit learning. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for online learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered in real-time by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.

A simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing. They lower learning. All that disappears with 5G.

Flawless streaming

Streaming will become much easier and almost flawless, allowing online learning to deliver whatever media is necessary at whatever time is optimal for learning. Note that this does not open the floodgates for over-engineered multimedia in learning, Media rich is not necessarily mind-rich. Many see video as the killer app for 5G. It is one but video is rarely enough on its own in learning. It will certainly boost LXP, personalised delivery of any media type.

AI mediated learning

AI delivered learning will also be easier as realtime calls to cloud-based AI services opens up smart solutions in learning. This opens up a new world for adaptive learning, feedback, chatbots, automated notifications based on xAPI, learning in the workflow. Specifically, it allows access to services, such as OpenAI API to tap into AI on demand. This means smarter, faster and better online learning. We free ourselves from the current presentation of flat, linear experiences. The process, and learning is not an event but a process, will be sensitive to each individual learner. Personalised learning becomes a reality. I mention Starlink in my book AI for Learning.

New user experiences

New user experiences and processes will be possible when we free ourselves from the tyranny of latency and slow speed internet. The promise of blended learning that can deliver great simulations, immersion and whatever one has delivered in the real world or classroom is now possible. New business models will emerge. New forms of learning with full immersion, AI, personalisation will emerge.

New devices

Rumours have it that Apple will be offering a ‘glasses’ or AR device. In any case, wearables, watches and small devices are now everywhere. 5G allows high speed access to and from these devices. This is not just about smartphones, it frees up fast internet speeds to all devices. We can link learning to devices that provide the context for learning. Where are you, what are you doing, then this is what we can do to help. This all becomes possible wherever you are indoors or outdoors, anywhere on the planet. 


The great leaps in learning technologies were writing, the alphabet, printing, broadcast media, computers, the internet and now AI and data. But this is the Internet with a difference. It's universal and global. Higher performance and improved efficiency empower new user experiences and connects new industries. This is not about boosting learning. It is about changing the very nature of education and learning. The implications for the poorer regions of the world are obvious, as it could be a great leveller. The tides rise with the gravitational pull of the moon, this is a rising tide that also comes from space, for everyone, one that doesn’t ebb.