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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.
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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Last year, a novelist went on a road trip across the USA. The trip was an attempt to emulate Jack Kerouac—to go out on the road and find something essential to write about in the experience. There is, however, a key difference between this writer and anyone else talking your ear off in the bar. This writer is just a microphone, a GPS, and a camera hooked up to a laptop and a whole bunch of linear algebra.
People who are optimistic that artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t put us all out of a job say that human ingenuity and creativity will be difficult to imitate. The classic argument is that, just as machines freed us from repetitive manual tasks, machine learning will free us from repetitive intellectual tasks.
This leaves us free to spend more time on the rewarding aspects of our work, pursuing creative hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and generally being human.
In this worldview, creative works like a great novel or symphony, and the emotions they evoke, cannot be reduced to lines of code. Humans retain a dimension of superiority over algorithms.
But is creativity a fundamentally human phenomenon? Or can it be learned by machines?
And if they learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves, could the great AI novel—tailored, of course, to your own predispositions in fiction—be the best you’ll ever read?
Maybe Not a Beach Read
This is the futurist’s view, of course. The reality, as the jury-rigged contraption in Ross Goodwin’s Cadillac for that road trip can attest, is some way off.
“This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin said of the novel that his machine created. 1 The Road is currently marketed as the first novel written by AI.
Once the neural network has been trained, it can generate any length of text that the author desires, either at random or working from a specific seed word or phrase. Goodwin used the sights and sounds of the road trip to provide these seeds: the novel is written one sentence at a time, based on images, locations, dialogue from the microphone, and even the computer’s own internal clock.
The results are… mixed.
The novel begins suitably enough, quoting the time: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” Descriptions of locations begin according to the Foursquare dataset fed into the algorithm, but rapidly veer off into the weeds, becoming surreal. While experimentation in literature is a wonderful thing, repeatedly quoting longitude and latitude coordinates verbatim is unlikely to win anyone the Booker Prize.
Data In, Art Out?
Neural networks as creative agents have some advantages. They excel at being trained on large datasets, identifying the patterns in those datasets, and producing output that follows those same rules. Music inspired by or written by AI has become a growing subgenre—there’s even a pop album by human-machine collaborators called the Songularity.
A neural network can “listen to” all of Bach and Mozart in hours, and train itself on the works of Shakespeare to produce passable pseudo-Bard. The idea of artificial creativity has become so widespread that there’s even a meme format about forcibly training neural network ‘bots’ on human writing samples, with hilarious consequences—although the best joke was undoubtedly human in origin.
The AI that roamed from New York to New Orleans was an LSTM (long short-term memory) neural net. By default, information contained in individual neurons is preserved, and only small parts can be “forgotten” or “learned” in an individual timestep, rather than neurons being entirely overwritten.
The LSTM architecture performs better than previous recurrent neural networks at tasks such as handwriting and speech recognition. The neural net—and its programmer—looked further in search of literary influences, ingesting 60 million words (360 MB) of raw literature according to Goodwin’s recipe: one third poetry, one third science fiction, and one third “bleak” literature.
In this way, Goodwin has some creative control over the project; the source material influences the machine’s vocabulary and sentence structuring, and hence the tone of the piece.
The Thoughts Beneath the Words
The problem with artificially intelligent novelists is the same problem with conversational artificial intelligence that computer scientists have been trying to solve from Turing’s day. The machines can understand and reproduce complex patterns increasingly better than humans can, but they have no understanding of what these patterns mean.
Goodwin’s neural network spits out sentences one letter at a time, on a tiny printer hooked up to the laptop. Statistical associations such as those tracked by neural nets can form words from letters, and sentences from words, but they know nothing of character or plot.
When talking to a chatbot, the code has no real understanding of what’s been said before, and there is no dataset large enough to train it through all of the billions of possible conversations.
Unless restricted to a predetermined set of options, it loses the thread of the conversation after a reply or two. In a similar way, the creative neural nets have no real grasp of what they’re writing, and no way to produce anything with any overarching coherence or narrative.
Goodwin’s experiment is an attempt to add some coherent backbone to the AI “novel” by repeatedly grounding it with stimuli from the cameras or microphones—the thematic links and narrative provided by the American landscape the neural network drives through.
Goodwin feels that this approach (the car itself moving through the landscape, as if a character) borrows some continuity and coherence from the journey itself. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.”
AI Is Still No Kerouac
A coherent tone and semantic “style” might be enough to produce some vaguely-convincing teenage poetry, as Google did, and experimental fiction that uses neural networks can have intriguing results. But wading through the surreal AI prose of this era, searching for some meaning or motif beyond novelty value, can be a frustrating experience.
Maybe machines can learn the complexities of the human heart and brain, or how to write evocative or entertaining prose. But they’re a long way off, and somehow “more layers!” or a bigger corpus of data doesn’t feel like enough to bridge that gulf.
Real attempts by machines to write fiction have so far been broadly incoherent, but with flashes of poetry—dreamlike, hallucinatory ramblings.
Neural networks might not be capable of writing intricately-plotted works with charm and wit, like Dickens or Dostoevsky, but there’s still an eeriness to trying to decipher the surreal, Finnegans’ Wake mish-mash.
You might see, in the odd line, the flickering ghost of something like consciousness, a deeper understanding. Or you might just see fragments of meaning thrown into a neural network blender, full of hype and fury, obeying rules in an occasionally striking way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In that sense, at least, the RNN’s grappling with metaphor feels like a metaphor for the hype surrounding the latest AI summer as a whole.
Or, as the human author of On The Road put it: “You guys are going somewhere or just going?”
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