Tuesday, April 22, 2008

IDEA MILL: THE LIFE OF AN ALGORITHMIC MAN

GARY WOLF, WIRED - Twenty years ago, [Piotr Wozniak] realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person's memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge - introspection, intuition, and conscious thought - but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we've read, help us track whom we've met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak's scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he's paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he's conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He's exploring what it's like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I've ever met. . .

As a student at the Poznan University of Technology in western Poland in the 1980s, Wozniak was overwhelmed by the sheer number of things he was expected to learn. . . The most important challenge was English. Wozniak refused to be satisfied with the broken, half-learned English that so many otherwise smart students were stuck with. So he created an analog database, with each entry consisting of a question and answer on a piece of paper. Every time he reviewed a word, phrase, or fact, he meticulously noted the date and marked whether he had forgotten it. At the end of the session, he tallied the number of remembered and forgotten items. By 1984, . . . Wozniak's database contained 3,000 English words and phrases and 1,400 facts culled from biology, each with a complete repetition history. He was now prepared to ask himself an important question: How long would it take him to master the things he wanted to know?

The answer: too long. In fact, the answer was worse than too long. According to Wozniak's first calculations, success was impossible. The problem wasn't learning the material; it was retaining it. He found that 40 percent of his English vocabulary vanished over time. Sixty percent of his biology answers evaporated. Using some simple calculations, he figured out that with his normal method of study, it would require two hours of practice every day to learn and retain a modest English vocabulary of 15,000 words. For 30,000 words, Wozniak would need twice that time. This was impractical. . .

Wozniak takes an almost physical pleasure in reason. He loves to discuss things with people, to get insight into their personalities, and to give them advice - especially in English. One of his most heartfelt wishes is that the world have one language and one currency so this could all be handled more efficiently. He's appalled that Poland is still not in the Eurozone. He's baffled that Americans do not use the metric system. For two years he kept a diary in Esperanto.

Although Esperanto was the ideal expression of his universalist dreams, English is the leading real-world implementation. Though he has never set foot in an English-speaking country, he speaks the language fluently. "Two words that used to give me trouble are perspicuous and perspicacious," he confessed as we drank beer with raspberry syrup at a tiny beachside restaurant where we were the only customers. "Then I found a mnemonic to enter in SuperMemo: clear/clever. Now I never misuse them."

2 Comments:

At April 22, 2008 3:32 PM, Anonymous Bill Chapman said...

How good to see the mention of Esperanto here. In fact Esperanto is a steadily growing language, spoken by people interested in life beyond their own frontiers. It's still worth learning and using.

 
At April 23, 2008 7:05 AM, Blogger Brian said...

May I explain that Esperanto does not intend to supplant ethnic languages to be a "single" language for the world, but to be everyone's "second" language.

You might like to check http://www.esperanto.net

 

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