Part 2: Machine Learning & Serendipitous Communication

Disclaimers: the Summit and Mozfest are pretty much back to back, so please excuse me for not being faster with these posts. Did you read Part 1? Part 2 is kind of long, as this post is a bit philosophical. I don’t know the answers or implications – I’d love to continue the conversation though.

Questions we were asking ourselves in this discussion:

  • How can we make communication on the web as serendipitous as it is in real life?
  • How can our digital lives integrate the idea of “off the record”?
  • How can customizable machine learning help augment our intellects so we can return to our own knowledge pathways?

Trying to answer these questions led to more questions. Questions that became sort of features to this learning process we imagined:
Does this thing, thing X, need to be documented, or will it be remembered? Technology should give us that choice. We don’t have to push things into memory via rote educational techniques, no matter what the standardized testing collective might say. Technology can learn and remember things for us, leaving us with more intellectual space to reflect more. To think about things more. To extend our consciousness more. To interact and learn more.

Sam Penrose, one of the people in this big-brained discussion, mentioned that Tim Berners Lee made the web to help scholars. Larry Page had the same intention when he came up with Page Rank. Scholars are people who understand things objectively. They look at the available documentation and out of it create new theory to be tested and thought about. They don’t necessarily care whether their new ideas are practical, feasible, probable or even currently possible. They care that the documentation can be looked at from an objective standpoint and that the conclusions they’ve drawn can be traced.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that we would become better at looking at things objectively if we could document our individual pathways? If we could understand how we drew the conclusions we drew – for everything? Doesn’t it stand to reason that we, humans, would be better equipped to solve global problems if we could turn objectivity on and off?

Learning about your learning

Enter machine learning. What if your machine could locally store the way you interact with the Web and begin to learn about you? What if its purpose in doing so was NOT so that someone, some corporation somewhere could advertise to you, but rather so that you could understand your views, objectively. What if the machine could explain to us how we’re interacting with knowledge?

What if you truly understood yourself, your knowledge, your beliefs? Would you become more empathetic or compassionate towards others? I think we might because we would see the knowledge relationships that are inside your brain, be able to deconstruct certain aspects and trace learning paths to the beginning. If all of that was documented, we could visualize it. If we could visualize it, we could interact with the various pieces and parts, and if we could do that, we could probably collaborate with others to evolve what we know.

Could a machine become your therapist?

It’s been proven that Blended Learning is more effective than strictly online or strictly offline learning, and I’ve been thinking about whether or not we can level all three playing fields. Imagine establishing more effective learning in a purely offline environment through the evolution of pedagogy (pedagogies developed for the world we live in, as it were). Imagine making online learning more effective through the evolution of technology (technologies developed for the people we could be). Imagine bringing them together to make all learning more effective for each and every person who wants to learn regardless of their socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, and imagine the whole world working together to do it. Meta, I know, but that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? Educate, truly educate, the world, so we can all live in Utopia.

The thing about learning is that it can happen anywhere. You’ve heard that before, but have you ever unpacked it? You might learn by doing something stupid (I certainly have), by trying something new, by repeating something you’ve done before. The human brain is designed for learning, but it’s quite easy to unlearn things as well. We could have a philosophical debate that if you “forget” something, you never really learned it in the first place, but IMHO that’s BS*.

Long-winded Example

Let’s bring it back from the philosophical and give an example of how this would be beneficial to a learner.

Let’s pretend that in the 9th grade you had a “phase”. Your crush was a nerd who was super into Manga and Spawn, Bruce Lee and Chinese healing techniques. Your crush became your boyfriend/girlfriend. Let’s pretend that through this person you sought out online information about Eastern Medicine. At the time, you learned quite a bit about what the West calls “Alternative Medicine”, but after your crush indicated shallow stupidity, your infatuation waned, you broke up, and you stopped learning, experimenting or caring about Eastern Medicine.

For a while, you remembered a lot about what you had read, but as the years went by, you forgot all about your temporary interest.
Fast forward 10 years when you find out that you have a repetitive stress disorder affecting your Median nerve. Your doctors say that it’s because every once in a while your nerve gets caught between C5 and C6 in your spine and about the only thing you can do to permanently get rid of the pain is to have a spinal surgery, which seems unnecessary since it’s unbelievably dangerous and your pain isn’t daily. You recall, fuzzily, an acupuncture or Chinese Cupping or some other “Alternative Medicine” technique that is supposed to help with nerve disorders. You recall its existence, but not where you read about it or what it was called.

Today, you would fire up a search engine and look for something like “Acupuncture for repetitive stress”. Then you would scan the articles  until one of them had a word that triggered your memory from 10 years ago. And if the trigger didn’t come, you’d read a lot of different articles and learn all about Eastern Medicine all over again.

What if instead of you actively having to access knowledge all the time, knowledge accessed you when you needed it? If our computers were documenting our pathways, that might just be possible. If I could say “Eastern Medicine” to my computer and have it return everything I’ve ever looked at on the subject, I would be searching my own knowledge base. What if my computer created a Web of only my brain?

The point is, knowledge is highly accessible through the Web, but individual knowledge is all our own responsibility. Does it have to be?

Serendipitous Communication

If our machines learned about us in the way I’ve described above, perhaps we could find better mechanisms to allow people to interact with each other via the Web. Some ideas we talked about:

  • What would it be like if I could “Ask an Expert” for free, in real time, on any web page, at any time of day or night?
  • What would it be like if I could randomly have an interaction with people I might have something in common with – like in real life when you walk into a cafe or bar based on the “vibe”? (Chat Roulette without the risk of the penises?)

I apologize for leaving it here. I’m a bit full at the moment (sitting on a plane heading to Mozfest), and with these questions I’m recalling a 2 week old conversation. We explored the very act of human communication. We expressed excitement about the fact that we, collectively, as a community, are defining technology. We are pushing innovation, which means we’re the ones that get to have these philosophical conversations. We’re the ones that get to innovate on something as breathtakingly massive as “Human Communication” – I encourage you to philosophize a little, spin a little, think a little and then continue to innovate.

Special thanks to @boriss @sampenrose and @ozten for creating a space where this conversation could begin.

*What was your third grade teachers name? Second grade?

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