Tag Archives: forces

#435023 Inflatable Robot Astronauts and How to ...

The typical cultural image of a robot—as a steel, chrome, humanoid bucket of bolts—is often far from the reality of cutting-edge robotics research. There are difficulties, both social and technological, in realizing the image of a robot from science fiction—let alone one that can actually help around the house. Often, it’s simply the case that great expense in producing a humanoid robot that can perform dozens of tasks quite badly is less appropriate than producing some other design that’s optimized to a specific situation.

A team of scientists from Brigham Young University has received funding from NASA to investigate an inflatable robot called, improbably, King Louie. The robot was developed by Pneubotics, who have a long track record in the world of soft robotics.

In space, weight is at a premium. The world watched in awe and amusement when Commander Chris Hadfield sang “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station—but launching that guitar into space likely cost around $100,000. A good price for launching payload into outer space is on the order of $10,000 per pound ($22,000/kg).

For that price, it would cost a cool $1.7 million to launch Boston Dynamics’ famous ATLAS robot to the International Space Station, and its bulk would be inconvenient in the cramped living quarters available. By contrast, an inflatable robot like King Louie is substantially lighter and can simply be deflated and folded away when not in use. The robot can be manufactured from cheap, lightweight, and flexible materials, and minor damage is easy to repair.

Inflatable Robots Under Pressure
The concept of inflatable robots is not new: indeed, earlier prototypes of King Louie were exhibited back in 2013 at Google I/O’s After Hours, flailing away at each other in a boxing ring. Sparks might fly in fights between traditional robots, but the aim here was to demonstrate that the robots are passively safe: the soft, inflatable figures won’t accidentally smash delicate items when moving around.

Health and safety regulations form part of the reason why robots don’t work alongside humans more often, but soft robots would be far safer to use in healthcare or around children (whose first instinct, according to BYU’s promotional video, is either to hug or punch King Louie.) It’s also much harder to have nightmarish fantasies about robotic domination with these friendlier softbots: Terminator would’ve been a much shorter franchise if Skynet’s droids were inflatable.

Robotic exoskeletons are increasingly used for physical rehabilitation therapies, as well as for industrial purposes. As countries like Japan seek to care for their aging populations with robots and alleviate the burden on nurses, who suffer from some of the highest rates of back injuries of any profession, soft robots will become increasingly attractive for use in healthcare.

Precision and Proprioception
The main issue is one of control. Rigid, metallic robots may be more expensive and more dangerous, but the simple fact of their rigidity makes it easier to map out and control the precise motions of each of the robot’s limbs, digits, and actuators. Individual motors attached to these rigid robots can allow for a great many degrees of freedom—individual directions in which parts of the robot can move—and precision control.

For example, ATLAS has 28 degrees of freedom, while Shadow’s dexterous robot hand alone has 20. This is much harder to do with an inflatable robot, for precisely the same reasons that make it safer. Without hard and rigid bones, other methods of control must be used.

In the case of King Louie, the robot is made up of many expandable air chambers. An air-compressor changes the pressure levels in these air chambers, allowing them to expand and contract. This harks back to some of the earliest pneumatic automata. Pairs of chambers act antagonistically, like muscles, such that when one chamber “tenses,” another relaxes—allowing King Louie to have, for example, four degrees of freedom in each of its arms.

The robot is also surprisingly strong. Professor Killpack, who works at BYU on the project, estimates that its payload is comparable to other humanoid robots on the market, like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter (RIP).

Proprioception, that sixth sense that allows us to map out and control our own bodies and muscles in fine detail, is being enhanced for a wider range of soft, flexible robots with the use of machine learning algorithms connected to input from a whole host of sensors on the robot’s body.

Part of the reason this is so complicated with soft, flexible robots is that the shape and “map” of the robot’s body can change; that’s the whole point. But this means that every time King Louie is inflated, its body is a slightly different shape; when it becomes deformed, for example due to picking up objects, the shape changes again, and the complex ways in which the fabric can twist and bend are far more difficult to model and sense than the behavior of the rigid metal of King Louie’s hard counterparts. When you’re looking for precision, seemingly-small changes can be the difference between successfully holding an object or dropping it.

Learning to Move
Researchers at BYU are therefore spending a great deal of time on how to control the soft-bot enough to make it comparably useful. One method involves the commercial tracking technology used in the Vive VR system: by moving the game controller, which provides a constant feedback to the robot’s arm, you can control its position. Since the tracking software provides an estimate of the robot’s joint angles and continues to provide feedback until the arm is correctly aligned, this type of feedback method is likely to work regardless of small changes to the robot’s shape.

The other technologies the researchers are looking into for their softbot include arrays of flexible, tactile sensors to place on the softbot’s skin, and minimizing the complex cross-talk between these arrays to get coherent information about the robot’s environment. As with some of the new proprioception research, the project is looking into neural networks as a means of modeling the complicated dynamics—the motion and response to forces—of the softbot. This method relies on large amounts of observational data, mapping how the robot is inflated and how it moves, rather than explicitly understanding and solving the equations that govern its motion—which hopefully means the methods can work even as the robot changes.

There’s still a long way to go before soft and inflatable robots can be controlled sufficiently well to perform all the tasks they might be used for. Ultimately, no one robotic design is likely to be perfect for any situation.

Nevertheless, research like this gives us hope that one day, inflatable robots could be useful tools, or even companions, at which point the advertising slogans write themselves: Don’t let them down, and they won’t let you down!

Image Credit: Brigham Young University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434857 It’s 2019 – where’s my ...

I loved the “Thundercats” cartoon as a child, watching cat-like humanoids fighting the forces of evil. Whenever their leader was in trouble, he'd unleash the Sword of Omens to gain “sight beyond sight,” the ability to see events happening at faraway places, or bellow “Thunder, Thunder, Thunder, Thundercats, Hooo!” to instantaneously summon his allies to his location to join the fight. What kid didn't want those superpowers? Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434823 The Tangled Web of Turning Spider Silk ...

Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.

Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.

That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.

The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.

Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.

“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.

The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.

The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)

Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.

The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.

Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.

Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.

“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”

Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.

Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.

Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.

For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.

Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.

Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.

“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.

That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.

“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”

And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.

Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.

“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.

Image Credit: mycteria / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434772 Traditional Higher Education Is Losing ...

Should you go to graduate school? If so, why? If not, what are your alternatives? Millions of young adults across the globe—and their parents and mentors—find themselves asking these questions every year.

Earlier this month, I explored how exponential technologies are rising to meet the needs of the rapidly changing workforce.

In this blog, I’ll dive into a highly effective way to build the business acumen and skills needed to make the most significant impact in these exponential times.

To start, let’s dive into the value of graduate school versus apprenticeship—especially during this time of extraordinarily rapid growth, and the micro-diversification of careers.

The True Value of an MBA
All graduate schools are not created equal.

For complex technical trades like medicine, engineering, and law, formal graduate-level training provides a critical foundation for safe, ethical practice (until these trades are fully augmented by artificial intelligence and automation…).

For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s focus on the value of a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, compared to acquiring your business acumen through various forms of apprenticeship.

The Waning of Business Degrees
Ironically, business schools are facing a tough business problem. The rapid rate of technological change, a booming job market, and the digitization of education are chipping away at the traditional graduate-level business program.

The data speaks for itself.

The Decline of Graduate School Admissions
Enrollment in two-year, full-time MBA programs in the US fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2016.

While in previous years, top business schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton) were safe from the decrease in applications, this year, they also felt the waning interest in MBA programs.

Harvard Business School: 4.5 percent decrease in applications, the school’s biggest drop since 2005.
Wharton: 6.7 percent decrease in applications.
Stanford Graduate School: 4.6 percent decrease in applications.

Another signal of change began unfolding over the past week. You may have read news headlines about an emerging college admissions scam, which implicates highly selective US universities, sports coaches, parents, and students in a conspiracy to game the undergraduate admissions process.

Already, students are filing multibillion-dollar civil lawsuits arguing that the scheme has devalued their degrees or denied them a fair admissions opportunity.

MBA Graduates in the Workforce
To meet today’s business needs, startups and massive companies alike are increasingly hiring technologists, developers, and engineers in place of the MBA graduates they may have preferentially hired in the past.

While 85 percent of US employers expect to hire MBA graduates this year (a decrease from 91 percent in 2017), 52 percent of employers worldwide expect to hire graduates with a master’s in data analytics (an increase from 35 percent last year).

We’re also seeing the waning of MBA degree holders at the CEO level.

For decades, an MBA was the hallmark of upward mobility towards the C-suite of top companies.

But as exponential technologies permeate not only products but every part of the supply chain—from manufacturing and shipping to sales, marketing and customer service—that trend is changing by necessity.

Looking at the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs in 2018 list, more CEOs on the list held engineering degrees than MBAs (34 held engineering degrees, while 32 held MBAs).

There’s much more to leading innovative companies than an advanced business degree.

How Are Schools Responding?
With disruption to the advanced business education system already here, some business schools are applying notes from their own innovation classes to brace for change.

Over the past half-decade, we’ve seen schools with smaller MBA programs shut their doors in favor of advanced degrees with more specialization. This directly responds to market demand for skills in data science, supply chain, and manufacturing.

Some degrees resemble the precise skills training of technical trades. Others are very much in line with the apprenticeship models we’ll explore next.

Regardless, this new specialization strategy is working and attracting more new students. Over the past decade (2006 to 2016), enrollment in specialized graduate business programs doubled.

Higher education is also seeing a preference shift toward for-profit trade schools, like coding boot camps. This shift is one of several forces pushing universities to adopt skill-specific advanced degrees.

But some schools are slow to adapt, raising the question: how and when will these legacy programs be disrupted? A survey of over 170 business school deans around the world showed that many programs are operating at a loss.

But if these schools are world-class business institutions, as advertised, why do they keep the doors open even while they lose money? The surveyed deans revealed an important insight: they keep the degree program open because of the program’s prestige.

Why Go to Business School?
Shorthand Credibility, Cognitive Biases, and Prestige
Regardless of what knowledge a person takes away from graduate school, attending one of the world’s most rigorous and elite programs gives grads external validation.

With over 55 percent of MBA applicants applying to just 6 percent of graduate business schools, we have a clear cognitive bias toward the perceived elite status of certain universities.

To the outside world, thanks to the power of cognitive biases, an advanced degree is credibility shorthand for your capabilities.

Simply passing through a top school’s filtration system means that you had some level of abilities and merits.

And startup success statistics tend to back up that perceived enhanced capability. Let’s take, for example, universities with the most startup unicorn founders (see the figure below).

When you consider the 320+ unicorn startups around the world today, these numbers become even more impressive. Stanford’s 18 unicorn companies account for over 5 percent of global unicorns, and Harvard is responsible for producing just under 5 percent.

Combined, just these two universities (out of over 5,000 in the US, and thousands more around the world) account for 1 in 10 of the billion-dollar private companies in the world.

By the numbers, the prestigious reputation of these elite business programs has a firm basis in current innovation success.

While prestige may be inherent to the degree earned by graduates from these business programs, the credibility boost from holding one of these degrees is not a guaranteed path to success in the business world.

For example, you might expect that the Harvard School of Business or Stanford Graduate School of Business would come out on top when tallying up the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs.

It turns out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison leads the business school pack with 14 CEOs to Harvard’s 12. Beyond prestige, the success these elite business programs see translates directly into cultivating unmatched networks and relationships.

Relationships
Graduate schools—particularly at the upper echelon—are excellent at attracting sharp students.

At an elite business school, if you meet just five to ten people with extraordinary skill sets, personalities, ideas, or networks, then you have returned your $200,000 education investment.

It’s no coincidence that some 40 percent of Silicon Valley venture capitalists are alumni of either Harvard or Stanford.

From future investors to advisors, friends, and potential business partners, relationships are critical to an entrepreneur’s success.

Apprenticeships
As we saw above, graduate business degree programs are melting away in the current wave of exponential change.

With an increasing $1.5 trillion in student debt, there must be a more impactful alternative to attending graduate school for those starting their careers.

When I think about the most important skills I use today as an entrepreneur, writer, and strategic thinker, they didn’t come from my decade of graduate school at Harvard or MIT… they came from my experiences building real technologies and companies, and working with mentors.

Apprenticeship comes in a variety of forms; here, I’ll cover three top-of-mind approaches:

Real-world business acumen via startup accelerators
A direct apprenticeship model
The 6 D’s of mentorship

Startup Accelerators and Business Practicum
Let’s contrast the shrinking interest in MBA programs with applications to a relatively new model of business education: startup accelerators.

Startup accelerators are short-term (typically three to six months), cohort-based programs focusing on providing startup founders with the resources (capital, mentorship, relationships, and education) needed to refine their entrepreneurial acumen.

While graduate business programs have been condensing, startup accelerators are alive, well, and expanding rapidly.

In the 10 years from 2005 (when Paul Graham founded Y Combinator) through 2015, the number of startup accelerators in the US increased by more than tenfold.

The increase in startup accelerator activity hints at a larger trend: our best and brightest business minds are opting to invest their time and efforts in obtaining hands-on experience, creating tangible value for themselves and others, rather than diving into the theory often taught in business school classrooms.

The “Strike Force” Model
The Strike Force is my elite team of young entrepreneurs who work directly with me across all of my companies, travel by my side, sit in on every meeting with me, and help build businesses that change the world.

Previous Strike Force members have gone on to launch successful companies, including Bold Capital Partners, my $250 million venture capital firm.

Strike Force is an apprenticeship for the next generation of exponential entrepreneurs.

To paraphrase my good friend Tony Robbins: If you want to short-circuit the video game, find someone who’s been there and done that and is now doing something you want to one day do.

Every year, over 500,000 apprentices in the US follow this precise template. These apprentices are learning a craft they wish to master, under the mentorship of experts (skilled metal workers, bricklayers, medical technicians, electricians, and more) who have already achieved the desired result.

What if we more readily applied this model to young adults with aspirations of creating massive value through the vehicles of entrepreneurship and innovation?

For the established entrepreneur: How can you bring young entrepreneurs into your organization to create more value for your company, while also passing on your ethos and lessons learned to the next generation?

For the young, driven millennial: How can you find your mentor and convince him or her to take you on as an apprentice? What value can you create for this person in exchange for their guidance and investment in your professional development?

The 6 D’s of Mentorship
In my last blog on education, I shared how mobile device and internet penetration will transform adult literacy and basic education. Mobile phones and connectivity already create extraordinary value for entrepreneurs and young professionals looking to take their business acumen and skill set to the next level.

For all of human history up until the last decade or so, if you wanted to learn from the best and brightest in business, leadership, or strategy, you either needed to search for a dated book that they wrote at the local library or bookstore, or you had to be lucky enough to meet that person for a live conversation.

Now you can access the mentorship of just about any thought leader on the planet, at any time, for free.

Thanks to the power of the internet, mentorship has digitized, demonetized, dematerialized, and democratized.

What do you want to learn about?

Investing? Leadership? Technology? Marketing? Project management?

You can access a near-infinite stream of cutting-edge tools, tactics, and lessons from thousands of top performers from nearly every field—instantaneously, and for free.

For example, every one of Warren Buffett’s letters to his Berkshire Hathaway investors over the past 40 years is available for free on a device that fits in your pocket.

The rise of audio—particularly podcasts and audiobooks—is another underestimated driving force away from traditional graduate business programs and toward apprenticeships.

Over 28 million podcast episodes are available for free. Once you identify the strong signals in the noise, you’re still left with thousands of hours of long-form podcast conversation from which to learn valuable lessons.

Whenever and wherever you want, you can learn from the world’s best. In the future, mentorship and apprenticeship will only become more personalized. Imagine accessing a high-fidelity, AI-powered avatar of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Arthur C. Clarke (one of my early mentors) to help guide you through your career.

Virtual mentorship and coaching are powerful education forces that are here to stay.

Bringing It All Together
The education system is rapidly changing. Traditional master’s programs for business are ebbing away in the tides of exponential technologies. Apprenticeship models are reemerging as an effective way to train tomorrow’s leaders.

In a future blog, I’ll revisit the concept of apprenticeships and other effective business school alternatives.

If you are a young, ambitious entrepreneur (or the parent of one), remember that you live in the most abundant time ever in human history to refine your craft.

Right now, you have access to world-class mentorship and cutting-edge best-practices—literally in the palm of your hand. What will you do with this extraordinary power?

Join Me
Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434685 How Tech Will Let You Learn Anything, ...

Today, over 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone with access to the world’s information and near-limitless learning resources.

Yet nearly 36 million adults in the US are constrained by low literacy skills, excluding them from professional opportunities, prospects of upward mobility, and full engagement with their children’s education.

And beyond its direct impact, low literacy rates affect us all. Improving literacy among adults is predicted to save $230 billion in national healthcare costs and could result in US labor productivity increases of up to 2.5 percent.

Across the board, exponential technologies are making demonetized learning tools, digital training platforms, and literacy solutions more accessible than ever before.

With rising automation and major paradigm shifts underway in the job market, these tools not only promise to make today’s workforce more versatile, but could play an invaluable role in breaking the poverty cycles often associated with low literacy.

Just three years ago, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation joined forces to tackle this intractable problem, launching a $7 million Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

Challenging teams to develop smartphone apps that significantly increase literacy skills among adult learners in just 12 months, the competition brought five prize teams to the fore, each targeting multiple demographics across the nation.

Now, after four years of research, prototyping, testing, and evaluation, XPRIZE has just this week announced two grand prize winners: Learning Upgrade and People ForWords.

In this blog, I’ll be exploring the nuts and bolts of our two winning teams and how exponential technologies are beginning to address rapidly shifting workforce demands.

We’ll discuss:

Meeting 100 percent adult literacy rates
Retooling today’s workforce for tomorrow’s job market
Granting the gift of lifelong learning

Let’s dive in.

Adult Literacy XPRIZE
Emphasizing the importance of accessible mediums and scalability, the Adult Literacy XPRIZE called for teams to create mobile solutions that lower the barrier to entry, encourage persistence, develop relevant learning content, and can scale nationally.

Outperforming the competition in two key demographic groups in aggregate—native English speakers and English language learners—teams Learning Upgrade and People ForWords together claimed the prize.

To win, both organizations successfully generated the greatest gains between a pre- and post-test, administered one year apart to learners in a 12-month field test across Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Prize money in hand, Learning Upgrade and People ForWords are now scaling up their solutions, each targeting a key demographic in America’s pursuit of adult literacy.

Based in San Diego, Learning Upgrade has developed an Android and iOS app that helps students learn English and math through video, songs, and gamification. Offering a total of 21 courses from kindergarten through adult education, Learning Upgrade touts a growing platform of over 900 lessons spanning English, reading, math, and even GED prep.

To further personalize each student’s learning, Learning Upgrade measures time-on-task and builds out formative performance assessments, granting teachers a quantified, real-time view of each student’s progress across both lessons and criteria.

Specialized in English reading skills, Dallas-based People ForWords offers a similarly delocalized model with its mobile game “Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis.” Based on an archaeological adventure storyline, the app features an immersive virtual environment.

Set in the Atlantis Library (now with a 3D rendering underway), Codex takes its students through narrative-peppered lessons covering everything from letter-sound practice to vocabulary reinforcement in a hidden object game.

But while both mobile apps have recruited initial piloting populations, the key to success is scale.

Using a similar incentive prize competition structure to drive recruitment, the second phase of the XPRIZE is a $1 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition. For 15 months, the competition will challenge organizations, communities, and individuals alike to onboard adult learners onto both prize-winning platforms and fellow finalist team apps, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed.

Each awarded $125,000 for participation in the Communities Competition, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed bring yet other nuanced advantages to the table.

While AmritaCREATE curates culturally appropriate e-content relevant to given life skills, Cell-Ed takes a learn-on-the-go approach, offering micro-lessons, on-demand essential skills training, and individualized coaching on any mobile device, no internet required.

Although all these cases target slightly different demographics and problem niches, they converge upon common phenomena: mobility, efficiency, life skill relevance, personalized learning, and practicability.

And what better to scale these benefits than AI and immersive virtual environments?

In the case of education’s growing mobility, 5G and the explosion of connectivity speeds will continue to drive a learn-anytime-anywhere education model, whereby adult users learn on the fly, untethered to web access or rigid time strictures.

As I’ve explored in a previous blog on AI-crowd collaboration, we might also see the rise of AI learning consultants responsible for processing data on how you learn.

Quantifying and analyzing your interaction with course modules, where you get stuck, where you thrive, and what tools cause you ease or frustration, each user’s AI trainer might then issue personalized recommendations based on crowd feedback.

Adding a human touch, each app’s hired teaching consultants would thereby be freed to track many more students’ progress at once, vetting AI-generated tips and adjustments, and offering life coaching along the way.

Lastly, virtual learning environments—and, one day, immersive VR—will facilitate both speed and retention, two of the most critical constraints as learners age.

As I often reference, people generally remember only 10 percent of what we see, 20 percent of what we hear, and 30 percent of what we read…. But over a staggering 90 percent of what we do or experience.

By introducing gamification, immersive testing activities, and visually rich sensory environments, adult literacy platforms have a winning chance at scalability, retention, and user persistence.

Exponential Tools: Training and Retooling a Dynamic Workforce
Beyond literacy, however, virtual and augmented reality have already begun disrupting the professional training market.

As projected by ABI Research, the enterprise VR training market is on track to exceed $6.3 billion in value by 2022.

Leading the charge, Walmart has already implemented VR across 200 Academy training centers, running over 45 modules and simulating everything from unusual customer requests to a Black Friday shopping rush.

Then in September of last year, Walmart committed to a 17,000-headset order of the Oculus Go to equip every US Supercenter, neighborhood market, and discount store with VR-based employee training.

In the engineering world, Bell Helicopter is using VR to massively expedite development and testing of its latest aircraft, FCX-001. Partnering with Sector 5 Digital and HTC VIVE, Bell found it could concentrate a typical six-year aircraft design process into the course of six months, turning physical mockups into CAD-designed virtual replicas.

But beyond the design process itself, Bell is now one of a slew of companies pioneering VR pilot tests and simulations with real-world accuracy. Seated in a true-to-life virtual cockpit, pilots have now tested countless iterations of the FCX-001 in virtual flight, drawing directly onto the 3D model and enacting aircraft modifications in real time.

And in an expansion of our virtual senses, several key players are already working on haptic feedback. In the case of VR flight, French company Go Touch VR is now partnering with software developer FlyInside on fingertip-mounted haptic tech for aviation.

Dramatically reducing time and trouble required for VR-testing pilots, they aim to give touch-based confirmation of every switch and dial activated on virtual flights, just as one would experience in a full-sized cockpit mockup. Replicating texture, stiffness, and even the sensation of holding an object, these piloted devices contain a suite of actuators to simulate everything from a light touch to higher-pressured contact, all controlled by gaze and finger movements.

When it comes to other high-risk simulations, virtual and augmented reality have barely scratched the surface.
Firefighters can now combat virtual wildfires with new platforms like FLAIM Trainer or TargetSolutions. And thanks to the expansion of medical AR/VR services like 3D4Medical or Echopixel, surgeons might soon perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.

But perhaps most urgently, virtual reality will offer an immediate solution to today’s constant industry turnover and large-scale re-education demands.

VR educational facilities with exact replicas of anything from large industrial equipment to minute circuitry will soon give anyone a second chance at the 21st-century job market.

Want to become an electric, autonomous vehicle mechanic at age 44? Throw on a demonetized VR module and learn by doing, testing your prototype iterations at almost zero cost and with no risk of harming others.

Want to be a plasma physicist and play around with a virtual nuclear fusion reactor? Now you’ll be able to simulate results and test out different tweaks, logging Smart Educational Record credits in the process.

As tomorrow’s career model shifts from a “one-and-done graduate degree” to continuous lifelong education, professional VR-based re-education will allow for a continuous education loop, reducing the barrier to entry for anyone wanting to try their hand at a new industry.

Learn Anything, Anytime, at Any Age
As VR and artificial intelligence converge with demonetized mobile connectivity, we are finally witnessing an era in which no one will be left behind.

Whether in pursuit of fundamental life skills, professional training, linguistic competence, or specialized retooling, users of all ages, career paths, income brackets, and goals are now encouraged to be students, no longer condemned to stagnancy.

Traditional constraints need no longer prevent non-native speakers from gaining an equal foothold, or specialists from pivoting into new professions, or low-income parents from staking new career paths.

As exponential technologies drive democratized access, bolstering initiatives such as the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE are blazing the trail to make education a scalable priority for all.

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