Category Archives: MIT

SixthSense for Autism

If you wear eyeglasses, drive a car or have fillings in your teeth you are well familiar with mechanical devices extending human powers. What’s often lost in today’s hubbub about technology is that beyond phone calls, reading and typing, invention can aid humans who need extra support.

Tim Byrne is a designer at Western Washington University who has a twin brother with autism. He was inspired to build a conceptual gadget that displays audio and visual cues to help individuals with autism manage the complexities of society, with an information feed that is discernible only to themselves. Games Alfresco reports it’s part of MIT’s SixthSense technology, which uses Internet connections and projectors to fill reality with digital information overlays. If you think this isn’t the future, next time you’re puzzled about something, just try not aiding your own memory with Google.

DARPA crowdsources red balloons

To mark the 40th birthday of the Web, DARPA came up with mission impossible. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. Launched in 1958 after the U.S. got scared by Sputnik, it helped fund a little thing called computer networking that led to the Internet.

So on Oct. 29 DARPA created a test to see if groups of Internet users could solve thorny puzzles. It moored 10 red weather balloons across the continental U.S. — visible from roads, but enigmatic to anyone who didn’t know why — and offered a $40,000 prize to the first team to pinpoint all the balloons’ locations. DARPA said the competition “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.”

Sounds impossible. The United States’ landmass is 9.1 million square kilometers. Solving it would require harnessing huge crowds of observers with little incentive to share information and no clear way to reach them.

Yesterday, a team from MIT found all the locations.

Via @jowyang.

iTunesU points to a future where colleges are free

Your iPod can open up the universe.

If you frequent the popular Apple iTunes music store you may have missed iTunesU, a little link to free lectures from Stanford, MIT, Yale and other leading universities. Glance elsewhere online and you’ll find the similar MIT Open Courseware site, Peer 2 Peer University, and loads of lectures on YouTube. These are not online degree programs but rather information troves posted for free by the universities, all up for anyone to dive in and explore.

Consultant Mark Pesce writes that this online course load is approaching an inflection point in which knowledge about knowledge becomes universal. Soon you will be able to pick from the best lectures on a given subject, from hundreds of lectures rated by studious peers online; you’ll access reading lists, class notes, and tests from any school in the world (who wants to compete on the global stage); and the virtuous cycle of universities competing to be the best will end the era of the best education being only for the wealthy.

There will always be value in brick-and-mortar: College parties and classroom physical debates open eyes, context, and job connections in a way that online viewing does not. Or perhaps even that will change.

In the future you will never finish a degree

What if you could experience any university virtually, meeting peers with 3-D avatars, and leap to only the best experiences? Education would flow outside the ivory walls of top institutions and tight four- or two-year intensive cycles to become an ongoing life learning model for those who wish to continually develop their minds. Perhaps in 20 years the nature of degrees will change from end points (where an MBA or doctorate is some ideal finish line) to check points. You reach level 2.0, then 3.0, and continually evolve. And at higher levels, you contribute back into the knowledge network to pull others forward.

The entire business model of universities would shift as well. Unfortunately colleges, like businesses, profit from the friction between supply and demand — and as knowledge flows freely the participants will want it for free.

No tuition. But advertising? You bet.

So instead of pulling $50,000 in annual tuition from each student in a small elite pool (and spending much of those funds on robotic library book pick-and-pack retrieval systems or college gyms approaching 5-star hotel spas, required to attract future elite students), universities will give education away for free to millions — in exchange for third-party sponsorship offsets, or smaller surcharges for degrees, or for an investment stake in the ideas, patents or even lifetime incomes of the brilliant minds who turn the knowledge gained into economic power. Purveyors of education will still make money, but they will do so at scale.

Is it too much to hope that higher education will become a pleasant commodity, a standard of living for billions instead of a Lexus badge owned by a few in rich nations? Maybe. Perhaps the value of degrees is the mystical cachet that comes from knowing only a few can attain the title. But then, basic literacy was once only for princes and priests, too.