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#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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Posted in Human Robots

#434643 Sensors and Machine Learning Are Giving ...

According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.

This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.

Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.

Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.

Piecemeal Solutions
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?

New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.

The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.

“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”

The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.

In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.

Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.

Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.

They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.

Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.

Damage Control
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.

Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.

But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434492 Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’ ...

When was the last time you watched a movie where you could control the plot?

Bandersnatch is the first interactive film in the sci fi anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, the film tells the story of young programmer Stefan Butler, who is adapting a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure novel called Bandersnatch into a video game. Throughout the film, viewers are given the power to influence Butler’s decisions, leading to diverging plots with different endings.

Like many Black Mirror episodes, this film is mind-bending, dark, and thought-provoking. In addition to innovating cinema as we know it, it is a fascinating rumination on free will, parallel realities, and emerging technologies.

Pick Your Own Adventure
With a non-linear script, Bandersnatch is a viewing experience like no other. Throughout the film viewers are given the option of making a decision for the protagonist. In these instances, they have 10 seconds to make a decision until a default decision is made. For example, in the early stage of the plot, Butler is given the choice of accepting or rejecting Tuckersoft’s offer to develop a video game and the viewer gets to decide what he does. The decision then shapes the plot accordingly.

The video game Butler is developing involves moving through a graphical maze of corridors while avoiding a creature called the Pax, and at times making choices through an on-screen instruction (sound familiar?). In other words, it’s a pick-your-own-adventure video game in a pick-your-own-adventure movie.

Many viewers have ended up spending hours exploring all the different branches of the narrative (though the average viewing is 90 minutes). One user on reddit has mapped out an entire flowchart, showing how all the different decisions (and pseudo-decisions) lead to various endings.

However, over time, Butler starts to question his own free will. It’s almost as if he’s beginning to realize that the audience is controlling him. In one branch of the narrative, he is confronted by this reality when the audience indicates to him that he is being controlled in a Netflix show: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make all the decisions for you”. Butler, as you can imagine, is horrified by this message.

But Butler isn’t the only one who has an illusion of choice. We, the seemingly powerful viewers, also appear to operate under the illusion of choice. Despite there being five main endings to the film, they are all more or less the same.

The Science Behind Bandersnatch
The premise of Bandersnatch isn’t based on fantasy, but hard science. Free will has always been a widely-debated issue in neuroscience, with reputable scientists and studies demonstrating that the whole concept may be an illusion.

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that studied voluntary decision making in humans. He found that brain activity imitating an action, such as moving your wrist, preceded the conscious awareness of the action.

Psychologist Malcom Gladwell theorizes that while we like to believe we spend a lot of time thinking about our decisions, our mental processes actually work rapidly, automatically, and often subconsciously, from relatively little information. In addition to this, thinking and making decisions are usually a byproduct of several different brain systems, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex working together. You are more conscious of some information processes in the brain than others.

As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out in his book Free Will, “You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime.” Like Butler, we may believe we are operating under full agency of our abilities, but we are at the mercy of many internal and external factors that influence our decisions.

Beyond free will, Bandersnatch also taps into the theory of parallel universes, a facet of the astronomical theory of the multiverse. In astrophysics, there is a theory that there are parallel universes other than our own, where all the choices you made are played out in alternate realities. For instance, if today you had the option of having cereal or eggs for breakfast, and you chose eggs, in a parallel universe, you chose cereal. Human history and our lives may have taken different paths in these parallel universes.

The Future of Cinema
In the future, the viewing experience will no longer be a passive one. Bandersnatch is just a glimpse into how technology is revolutionizing film as we know it and making it a more interactive and personalized experience. All the different scenarios and branches of the plot were scripted and filmed, but in the future, they may be adapted real-time via artificial intelligence.

Virtual reality may allow us to play an even more active role by making us participants or characters in the film. Data from your history of preferences and may be used to create a unique version of the plot that is optimized for your viewing experience.

Let’s also not underestimate the social purpose of advancing film and entertainment. Science fiction gives us the ability to create simulations of the future. Different narratives can allow us to explore how powerful technologies combined with human behavior can result in positive or negative scenarios. Perhaps in the future, science fiction will explore implications of technologies and observe human decision making in novel contexts, via AI-powered films in the virtual world.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434303 Making Superhumans Through Radical ...

Imagine trying to read War and Peace one letter at a time. The thought alone feels excruciating. But in many ways, this painful idea holds parallels to how human-machine interfaces (HMI) force us to interact with and process data today.

Designed back in the 1970s at Xerox PARC and later refined during the 1980s by Apple, today’s HMI was originally conceived during fundamentally different times, and specifically, before people and machines were generating so much data. Fast forward to 2019, when humans are estimated to produce 44 zettabytes of data—equal to two stacks of books from here to Pluto—and we are still using the same HMI from the 1970s.

These dated interfaces are not equipped to handle today’s exponential rise in data, which has been ushered in by the rapid dematerialization of many physical products into computers and software.

Breakthroughs in perceptual and cognitive computing, especially machine learning algorithms, are enabling technology to process vast volumes of data, and in doing so, they are dramatically amplifying our brain’s abilities. Yet even with these powerful technologies that at times make us feel superhuman, the interfaces are still crippled with poor ergonomics.

Many interfaces are still designed around the concept that human interaction with technology is secondary, not instantaneous. This means that any time someone uses technology, they are inevitably multitasking, because they must simultaneously perform a task and operate the technology.

If our aim, however, is to create technology that truly extends and amplifies our mental abilities so that we can offload important tasks, the technology that helps us must not also overwhelm us in the process. We must reimagine interfaces to work in coherence with how our minds function in the world so that our brains and these tools can work together seamlessly.

Embodied Cognition
Most technology is designed to serve either the mind or the body. It is a problematic divide, because our brains use our entire body to process the world around us. Said differently, our minds and bodies do not operate distinctly. Our minds are embodied.

Studies using MRI scans have shown that when a person feels an emotion in their gut, blood actually moves to that area of the body. The body and the mind are linked in this way, sharing information back and forth continuously.

Current technology presents data to the brain differently from how the brain processes data. Our brains, for example, use sensory data to continually encode and decipher patterns within the neocortex. Our brains do not create a linguistic label for each item, which is how the majority of machine learning systems operate, nor do our brains have an image associated with each of these labels.

Our bodies move information through us instantaneously, in a sense “computing” at the speed of thought. What if our technology could do the same?

Using Cognitive Ergonomics to Design Better Interfaces
Well-designed physical tools, as philosopher Martin Heidegger once meditated on while using the metaphor of a hammer, seem to disappear into the “hand.” They are designed to amplify a human ability and not get in the way during the process.

The aim of physical ergonomics is to understand the mechanical movement of the human body and then adapt a physical system to amplify the human output in accordance. By understanding the movement of the body, physical ergonomics enables ergonomically sound physical affordances—or conditions—so that the mechanical movement of the body and the mechanical movement of the machine can work together harmoniously.

Cognitive ergonomics applied to HMI design uses this same idea of amplifying output, but rather than focusing on physical output, the focus is on mental output. By understanding the raw materials the brain uses to comprehend information and form an output, cognitive ergonomics allows technologists and designers to create technological affordances so that the brain can work seamlessly with interfaces and remove the interruption costs of our current devices. In doing so, the technology itself “disappears,” and a person’s interaction with technology becomes fluid and primary.

By leveraging cognitive ergonomics in HMI design, we can create a generation of interfaces that can process and present data the same way humans process real-world information, meaning through fully-sensory interfaces.

Several brain-machine interfaces are already on the path to achieving this. AlterEgo, a wearable device developed by MIT researchers, uses electrodes to detect and understand nonverbal prompts, which enables the device to read the user’s mind and act as an extension of the user’s cognition.

Another notable example is the BrainGate neural device, created by researchers at Stanford University. Just two months ago, a study was released showing that this brain implant system allowed paralyzed patients to navigate an Android tablet with their thoughts alone.

These are two extraordinary examples of what is possible for the future of HMI, but there is still a long way to go to bring cognitive ergonomics front and center in interface design.

Disruptive Innovation Happens When You Step Outside Your Existing Users
Most of today’s interfaces are designed by a narrow population, made up predominantly of white, non-disabled men who are prolific in the use of technology (you may recall The New York Times viral article from 2016, Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem). If you ask this population if there is a problem with today’s HMIs, most will say no, and this is because the technology has been designed to serve them.

This lack of diversity means a limited perspective is being brought to interface design, which is problematic if we want HMI to evolve and work seamlessly with the brain. To use cognitive ergonomics in interface design, we must first gain a more holistic understanding of how people with different abilities understand the world and how they interact with technology.

Underserved groups, such as people with physical disabilities, operate on what Clayton Christensen coined in The Innovator’s Dilemma as the fringe segment of a market. Developing solutions that cater to fringe groups can in fact disrupt the larger market by opening a downward, much larger market.

Learning From Underserved Populations
When technology fails to serve a group of people, that group must adapt the technology to meet their needs.

The workarounds created are often ingenious, specifically because they have not been arrived at by preferences, but out of necessity that has forced disadvantaged users to approach the technology from a very different vantage point.

When a designer or technologist begins learning from this new viewpoint and understanding challenges through a different lens, they can bring new perspectives to design—perspectives that otherwise can go unseen.

Designers and technologists can also learn from people with physical disabilities who interact with the world by leveraging other senses that help them compensate for one they may lack. For example, some blind people use echolocation to detect objects in their environments.

The BrainPort device developed by Wicab is an incredible example of technology leveraging one human sense to serve or compliment another. The BrainPort device captures environmental information with a wearable video camera and converts this data into soft electrical stimulation sequences that are sent to a device on the user’s tongue—the most sensitive touch receptor in the body. The user learns how to interpret the patterns felt on their tongue, and in doing so, become able to “see” with their tongue.

Key to the future of HMI design is learning how different user groups navigate the world through senses beyond sight. To make cognitive ergonomics work, we must understand how to leverage the senses so we’re not always solely relying on our visual or verbal interactions.

Radical Inclusion for the Future of HMI
Bringing radical inclusion into HMI design is about gaining a broader lens on technology design at large, so that technology can serve everyone better.

Interestingly, cognitive ergonomics and radical inclusion go hand in hand. We can’t design our interfaces with cognitive ergonomics without bringing radical inclusion into the picture, and we also will not arrive at radical inclusion in technology so long as cognitive ergonomics are not considered.

This new mindset is the only way to usher in an era of technology design that amplifies the collective human ability to create a more inclusive future for all.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434235 The Milestones of Human Progress We ...

When you look back at 2018, do you see a good or a bad year? Chances are, your perception of the year involves fixating on all the global and personal challenges it brought. In fact, every year, we tend to look back at the previous year as “one of the most difficult” and hope that the following year is more exciting and fruitful.

But in the grander context of human history, 2018 was an extraordinarily positive year. In fact, every year has been getting progressively better.

Before we dive into some of the highlights of human progress from 2018, let’s make one thing clear. There is no doubt that there are many overwhelming global challenges facing our species. From climate change to growing wealth inequality, we are far from living in a utopia.

Yet it’s important to recognize that both our news outlets and audiences have been disproportionately fixated on negative news. This emphasis on bad news is detrimental to our sense of empowerment as a species.

So let’s take a break from all the disproportionate negativity and have a look back on how humanity pushed boundaries in 2018.

On Track to Becoming an Interplanetary Species
We often forget how far we’ve come since the very first humans left the African savanna, populated the entire planet, and developed powerful technological capabilities. Our desire to explore the unknown has shaped the course of human evolution and will continue to do so.

This year, we continued to push the boundaries of space exploration. As depicted in the enchanting short film Wanderers, humanity’s destiny is the stars. We are born to be wanderers of the cosmos and the everlasting unknown.

SpaceX had 21 successful launches in 2018 and closed the year with a successful GPS launch. The latest test flight by Virgin Galactic was also an incredible milestone, as SpaceShipTwo was welcomed into space. Richard Branson and his team expect that space tourism will be a reality within the next 18 months.

Our understanding of the cosmos is also moving forward with continuous breakthroughs in astrophysics and astronomy. One notable example is the MARS InSight Mission, which uses cutting-edge instruments to study Mars’ interior structure and has even given us the first recordings of sound on Mars.

Understanding and Tackling Disease
Thanks to advancements in science and medicine, we are currently living longer, healthier, and wealthier lives than at any other point in human history. In fact, for most of human history, life expectancy at birth was around 30. Today it is more than 70 worldwide, and in the developed parts of the world, more than 80.

Brilliant researchers around the world are pushing for even better health outcomes. This year, we saw promising treatments emerge against Alzheimers disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple scleroris, and even the flu.

The deadliest disease of them all, cancer, is also being tackled. According to the American Association of Cancer Research, 22 revolutionary treatments for cancer were approved in the last year, and the death rate in adults is also in decline. Advancements in immunotherapy, genetic engineering, stem cells, and nanotechnology are all powerful resources to tackle killer diseases.

Breakthrough Mental Health Therapy
While cleaner energy, access to education, and higher employment rates can improve quality of life, they do not guarantee happiness and inner peace. According to the World Economic Forum, mental health disorders affect one in four people globally, and in many places they are significantly under-reported. More people are beginning to realize that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and that we ought to take care of our minds just as much as our bodies.

We are seeing the rise of applications that put mental well-being at their center. Breakthrough advancements in genetics are allowing us to better understand the genetic makeup of disorders like clinical depression or Schizophrenia, and paving the way for personalized medical treatment. We are also seeing the rise of increasingly effective therapeutic treatments for anxiety.

This year saw many milestones for a whole new revolutionary area in mental health: psychedelic therapy. Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment for depression and anxiety.

Moral and Social Progress
Innovation is often associated with economic and technological progress. However, we also need leaps of progress in our morality, values, and policies. Throughout the 21st century, we’ve made massive strides in rights for women and children, civil rights, LGBT rights, animal rights, and beyond. However, with rising nationalism and xenophobia in many parts of the developed world, there is significant work to be done on this front.

All hope is not lost, as we saw many noteworthy milestones this year. In January 2018, Iceland introduced the equal wage law, bringing an end to the gender wage gap. On September 6th, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality, marking a historical moment. Earlier in December, the European Commission released a draft of ethics guidelines for trustworthy artificial intelligence. Such are just a few examples of positive progress in social justice, ethics, and policy.

We are also seeing a global rise in social impact entrepreneurship. Emerging startups are no longer valued simply based on their profits and revenue, but also on the level of positive impact they are having on the world at large. The world’s leading innovators are not asking themselves “How can I become rich?” but rather “How can I solve this global challenge?”

Intelligently Optimistic for 2019
It’s becoming more and more clear that we are living in the most exciting time in human history. Even more, we mustn’t be afraid to be optimistic about 2019.

An optimistic mindset can be grounded in rationality and evidence. Intelligent optimism is all about being excited about the future in an informed and rational way. The mindset is critical if we are to get everyone excited about the future by highlighting the rapid progress we have made and recognizing the tremendous potential humans have to find solutions to our problems.

In his latest TED talk, Steven Pinker points out, “Progress does not mean that everything becomes better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be a miracle, and progress is not a miracle but problem-solving. Problems are inevitable and solutions create new problems which have to be solved in their turn.”

Let us not forget that in cosmic time scales, our entire species’ lifetime, including all of human history, is the equivalent of the blink of an eye. The probability of us existing both as an intelligent species and as individuals is so astoundingly low that it’s practically non-existent. We are the products of 14 billion years of cosmic evolution and extraordinarily good fortune. Let’s recognize and leverage this wondrous opportunity, and pave an exciting way forward.

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic / Virgin Galactic 2018. Continue reading

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