Monday, May 22, 2017

Philosophy of technology - Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger - technology is not a black box

Greek dystopia
The Greeks understood, profoundly, the philosophy of technology. In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, when Zeus hands Prometheus the power of metallurgy, writing and mathematics, Prometheus gifts it to man, so Zeus punishes him, with eternal torture. This warning is the first dystopian view of technology in Western culture. Mary Shelley called Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus’ and Hollywood has delivered for a nearly a century on that dystopian vision. Art has largely been wary and critical of technology.
God as maker
But there is another more considered view of technology in ancient Greece. Plato articulated the philosophy of technology, seeing the world, in his Timaeus, as the work of an ‘Artisan’, in other words the universe is a created entity, a technology. Aristotle makes the brilliant observation in his Physics, that technology not only mimics nature but continues “what nature cannot bring to a finish”. They set in train an idea that the universe was made and that there was a maker, the universe as a technological creation.
The following two thousand year history of Western culture bought into the myth of the universe as a piece of created technology. Paley, who formulated the modern argument for the existence of God from design, used technological imagery, the watch, to specify, even prove, the existence of a designed universe and therefore a designer - we call (him) God. God as watchmaker, technologist, has been the dominant, popular, philosophical belief for two millennia.
Technology, in this sense, helped generate this metaphysical deity. It is this binary separation of the subject from the object that allows us to create new realms, heaven and earth, which gets a moral patina and becomes good and evil, heaven and hell. The machinations of the pastoral heaven and fiery foundry that is hell then reveals the dystopian vision of the Greeks.
Technology is the manifestation of human conceptualization and action, as it creates objects that enhance human powers, first physical then psychological. With the first hand-held axes, we turned natural materials to our own ends. With such tools we could hunt, expand and thrive, then control the energy from felled trees to create metals and forge even more powerful tools. Tools beget tools.
Monotheism rises on the back of cultures in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, that were literally living on the fruits of their tool-aided labour. The spade, the plough and the scythe gave them time to reflect. Interestingly our first records, on that beautifully permanent piece of technology, the clay tablet, are largely the accounts of agricultural produce. The rise of writing and efficient alphabets make writing the technology of control. We are at heart accountants, holding everything to account, even our sins. The great religious books of accounts were the first global best sellers. .
Technology slew God
Technology may have suggested, then created God, but in the end it slew him. With Copernicus, who drew upon technology generated data, we found ourselves at some distance from the centre of the Universe, not even at the centre of our own little whirl of planets. Darwin then destroyed the last conceit, that we were unique and created in the eyes of a God. We were the product of the blind watchmaker, a mechanical, double-helix,process not a maker, reduced to mere accidents of genetic generation, the sons not of Gods but genetic mistakes.
Anchors lost, we were adrift, but we humans are a cunning species. We not only make things up, we make things and make things happen.
We are makers
Once God was dead, in the Nietzschean sense of a conceptual death, we were left with just technology. Radovan Richta’s theory of Technological Evolution posited three stages – tools, machines and automation. We got our solace not from being created forms but by creating forms ourselves. We became little Gods and began to create our own universe. We abandoned the fields for factories and designed machines that could do the work of many men. What we learned was scale. We scaled agricultural production through technology in the agricultural revolution, scaled factory production in the industrial revolution, scaled mass production in the consumer revolution. Then more machines to take us to far-off places – the seaside, another country, the moon. We now scale the very thing that created this technology, ourselves. We alchemists have learned to scale our own brains.
Maker destroy the Little Gods
Eventually we realized that even we, as creators, could make machines that could know and think on our behalf. God had died but now the Little Gods are dying. Gods have a habit of destroying their creators and we will return to that agricultural age, an age of an abundance of time and the death of distance. We, once more, will have to reflect on the folly of work and learn to accept that was never our fate, only an aberration. Technology now literally shapes our conception of place and space. With film, radio, TV and the web. As spiders we got entangled in our own web and it now begins to spin us.
Technology not a black box
Technology is not a ‘black box’, something separate from us. It has shaped our evolution, shaped our progress, shaped out thinking - it will shape our future. It may even be an existential threat. There is a complex dialectic between our species and technology that is far more multifaceted than the simplistic ‘it’s about people not technology’ trope one constantly hears on the subject. That dialectic has suddenly got a lot more complex with AI. As Martin Heidegger said in his famous Spiegel interview, “Only a God can save us”. What I think he meant by this was that technology has become something greater than us, something we now find difficult to even see, as its hand has become ever more invisible. It is vital that we reflect on technology, not as a ‘thing-in-itself’, separate from us, but as part of us. Now that we know there may be no maker God, no omnipotent technologist, we have to face up to our own future as makers. For that we need to turn to philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Heidegger are a good start…. 

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

10 uses for Amazon Echo in corporates

OK she’s been in my kitchen for months and I’m in the habit of asking her to give me Radio 4 while I’m making my morning coffee. Useful for music as well, especially when a tune comes into your head. But it’s usually some question I have in my head or topic I want some detail on. My wife’s getting used to hearing me talk to someone else while in another room. But what about the more formal use of Alexa in a business? Could its frictionless, hands-free, natural language interface be of use in the office environment?
1. Timer
How often have you been in a meeting that’s overrun? You can set multiple timers on Alexa and she will light up and alarm you (softly) towards the end of each agenda item, say one minute before the next agenda item. It could also be useful as a timer for speakers and presenters. Ten minutes each? Set her up and she provides both visual and aural timed cues. I guess it would pay for itself at the end of the first meeting!
2.  Calendar functionality
As Alexa can be integrated with your Google calendar, you simply say, “Alexa, tell Quick Events to add go to see Tuesday 4th March at 11 a.m.". It prompts you until it has the complete scheduled entry.
3. To do lists
Alexa will add things to a To Do list. This could be an action list from a meeting or a personal list.
4. Calculator
Need numbers added, subtracted, multiplied, divided? You can read them in quickly and Alexa relpies quickly.
5. Queries and questions
Quick questions or more detailed stuff from Wikipedia? Alexa will oblige. You can also get stock quotes and even do banking through Capital One. Expect others to follow.
6. Domain specific knowledge
Product knowledge, company specific knowledge, Alexa can be trained to respond to voice queries. Deliver a large range of text files and Alexa can find the relevant one on request.
7. Training
You can provide text (text to speech) or your own audio briefings. Indeed, you can have as many of these as you want. Or go one step further with a quiz app that delivers audio training.
8. Music
Set yourself up for the day or have some ambient music on while you work? Better still music that responds to your mood and requests, Alexa is your DJ on demand.
9.  Order sandwiches, Pizza or Uber
As Alexa is connected to several suppliers, you can get these delivered to your business door. Saves all of that running out for lunchtime sandwiches or pizza.
10. Control office environment
You can control your office environment through the Smart Home Skill API. This will work with existing smart home devices but there’s a developer’s kit so that you can develop your own. It can control lights, thermostats, security systems and so on.

As natural language AI applications progress, we will see these business uses become more responsive and sophisticated. This is likely to eat into that huge portion of management that the Harvard Business Review identified as admin. Beyond this are applications that deliver services, knowledge and training, specific to your organisation and you as an individual. Working on this as an application in training as we speak.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

AI moving towards the invisible interface

AI is the new UI
What do the most popular online applications all have in common? They all use AI-driven interfaces. AI is the new UI. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Email, Amazon, Google Maps, Google Translate, Satnav, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Netflix all use sophisticated AI to personalise in terms of filtering, relevance, convenience, time and place-sensitivity. They work because they tailor themselves to your needs. Few notice the invisible hand that makes them work, that makes them more appealing. In fact, they work because they are invisible. It is not the user interface that matters, it is the user experience.
Yet, in online learning, AI UIs are rarely used. That’s a puzzle, as it is the one area of human endeavour that has the most to gain. As Black & William showed, feedback that is relevant, clear and precise, goes a long way in learning. Not so much a silver bullet as a series of well targeted rifle shots that keep the learner moving forward. When learning is sensitive to the learner’s needs in terms of pace, relevance and convenience, things progress.
Learning demands attention and because our working memory is the narrow funnel through which we acquire knowledge and skills, the more frictionless the interface, the more efficient the speed and efficacy of learning. Why load the learner with the extra tasks of learning an interface, navigation and extraneous noise. We’ve seen steady progress beyond the QWERTY keyboard, designed to slow typing down to avoid mechanical jams, towards mice and touch screens. But it is with the leap into AI that interfaces are becoming truly invisble.
Voice was the first breakthrough and voice recognition is only now reaching the level of reliability that allows it to be used in consumer computers, smartphones and devices in the home, like Amazon Echo and Google Home. We don’t have to learn how to speak and listen, those are skills we picked up effortlessly as young children. In a sense, we didn’t have to learn how to do these things at all, they came naturally. As bots develop the ability to engage in dialogue, they will be ever more useful in teaching and learning.
AI also provides typing, fingerprint and face recognition. These can be used for personal identification, even assessment. Face recognition for ID, as well as thought diagnosis, is also advancing, as is eye movement and physical gesture recognition. Such techniques are commonly used in online services such as Google, Facebook, Snapchat and so on. But there are bigger prizes in the invisible interface game. So let's take a leapof the imagination and see where this may lead to over the next few decades.
Frictionless interfaces
Mark Zuckerberg announced this year that he wants to get into mind interfaces, where you control computers and write straight from thought. This is an attempt to move beyond smartphones. The advantages are obvious in that you think fast, type slow. There’s already someone with a pea-sized implant that can type eight words a minute. Optical imaging (lasers) that read the brain are one possibility. There is an obvious problem here around privacy but Facebook claim to be focussing only on words chosen by the brain for speech i.e. things you were going to say anyway. This capability could also be used to control augmented and virtual reality, as well as comms to the internet of things. Underlying all of this is AI.
In Sex, Lies and Brain Scans, by Sahakian and Gottwald, the advances in this area sound astonishing. John-Dylan Hayes (Max Plank Institute) can already predict intentions in the mind, with scans, to see whether the brain is about to add or subtract two numbers, or press a right or left button. Words can also be read, with Tom Mitchell (Carnegie Mellon) able to spot, from fMRI scans, nouns from a list of 60, 7 times out of 10. They moved on to train the model to predict words out of a set of 1001 nouns, 7 times out of 10. Jack Gallant (University of California) reconstructed watched movies purely from scans. Even emotions can be read, such as fear, happiness, sadness, lust and pride by Karim Kassan (Carnegie Mellon). Beyond this there has been modest success by Tomoyasu Horikawain identifying topics in dreams. Sentiment analysis from text and speech is also making progress with AI systems providing the analysis.
The good news is that there seems to be commonality across humans, as semantic maps, the relationship between words and concepts seems to be consistent across individuals. Of course, there are problems to be overcome as the brain tends to produce a lot of ‘noise’, which rises and falls but doesn’t tell us much else. The speed of neurotransmission is blindingly fast, making that difficult to track and, of course, most of these experiments use huge, immobile and expensive scanners.
The implications for learning are obvious. When we know what you think, we know whether you are learning, optimise that learning, provide relevant feedback and also reliably assess. To read the mind is to read the learning process, it’s misunderstandings and failures, as well as its understanding and successful acquisition of knowledge and skills. A window into the mind gives teachers and students unique advantages in learning.
Seamless interfaces
Elon Musk’s Neuralink goes one step further looking at extending our already extended mind through Neural Laces or implants. Although our brains can cope with sizeable INPUT flows through our senses, we are severely limited on OUTPUT, with speech or two meat fingers pecking away on keyboards and touchscreens. The goal is to interface physically with the brain to explore communications but also storage and therefore extended memory. Imagine expanding your memory so that it becomes more reliable – able to know so much more, have higher mathematical skills, speak many languages, have many more skills.
We already have cochlear implants that bring hearing to the deaf, implants that allow those who suffer from paralysis to use their limbs. We have seen how brain use in VR can rewire the brain and restore the nervous system in paraplegics. This should come as no surprise that this will develop further as AI solves the problem of interfacing, in the sense of both reading and writing to the brain.
The potential for learning is literally ‘mind blowing’. Massively leaps in efficacy may be possible, as well as retained knowledge, retrieval and skills. We are augmenting the brain by making it part of a larger network, seamlessly.

There is a sense in which the middleman is being slowly squeezed out here or disintermediated. Will there be a need for classrooms, teaching, blackboards, whiteboards, lectures or any of the apparatus of teaching when the brain is an open notebook, ready to interface directly with knowledge and skills, at first with deviceless natural interfaces using voice, gesture and looks, then frictionless brain communications and finally seamless brain links. Clumsy interfaces inhibit learning, clean smooth, deviceless, frictionless and seamless interfaces enhance and accelerate learning. This all plays to enhancing the weaknesses of the evolved biological brain - its biases, inattentiveness, forgetting, need to sleep, depressive tendencies, lack of download or networking, slow decline, dementia and death. A new frontier has opened up and we’re crossing literally into ‘unknown’ territory. We may even find that we will come to know the previously unknowable and think at levels beyond the current limitations of our flawed brains.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Scrap your company values and replace with 'Don't be a dick!'... the rest is hubris

A brief conversation with a young woman, in the queue for lunch at a corporate ‘values’ day, opened my eyes up to the whole values thing in organisations. “I have my values,” she said, “and they’re not going to be changed by a HR department.... I’ll be leaving in a couple of years and no doubt their HR will have a different set of values… which I’ll also ignore”. Wisest thing I heard all day.
You’ve probably had the ‘values’ treatment. Suddenly, parachuted out of HR, comes a few abstract nouns, or worse, an acronym, stating that the organisation now has some really important ‘values’. Even worse, an expensive external agency may have juiced them up. I genuinely like organisations that have a strategy, purpose, even a mission. But the current obsession with organisational values I don't buy.
I also chaired a Skills Summit last month, where innumerable HR folk paraded their company values with the usual earnestness. An endless stream of abstract nouns, all of which seemed like things any normal human being would want in any context, in or out of work - you know the words - integrity, innovation, honesty, community....  After a full day of this stuff I was impressed by the guy who ran a small, successful software company, who stood at the podium, and claimed that his company didn't really have any stated values but felt that the whole 'values' thing could be replaced by one phrase 'Don't be a dick!". All company values can be substituted by this one phrase. The rest is hubris....  

Bullshit Bingo
Having dealt with hundreds of large organisations for more than 30 years, I have yet to find one whose values were anything more than platitudes. They are invariably a crude mixture of reactive PR, HR overreach and the crude selection from a list of abstract nouns, sometimes into an idiotic acronym. In reality - even when masked by complex consultancy reports and training - it's almost always bullshit Bingo.
Why would we imagine that HR have any skills in this area? In what sense are they 'experts' in values? For me, it is a utopian view of work and organisations. I can remember the day when organisational 'value' lists never existed. People were more honest and realistic about expectations. They came in when HR suddenly decided that they had to look after our emotional and moral welfare - always a rather ridiculous idea.
The banks were full of this 'values' culture. I worked with most of them. It was all puff and PR. People do not, and don't, buy into this stuff. They can barely recall what the values are. I have values and I'm not interested in what HR, or some external consultant, says my values should be. The even more ridiculous idea that people who don't adopt those values should be forced out is wrong and illegal.
The problem here was a shift when HR started to become the people who protected the company against their own employees - that, for example, is what compliance training is largely about - ticking boxes in case of insurance and fines. They dress this up in ‘values’ documents but few remember them and even fewer care.... The really interesting thing about 'values' in my experience is that those companies who felt most compelled to get them identified - banks, accountancies, consultancies, tech companies, pharma companies etc. - were the very companies where they were most ignored. In fact, they were counterproductive as the employees all knew they were a scam, designed to 'police' them. Try this authenticity test to your company values. Sniff out the hubris and bullshit.
Test 1: Bad acronyms - values created to fit word
If your values set is an acronym, they’re likely to be inauthentic. The net result of fuzzy HR thinking is so often the ‘bad acronym’. Chances are that someone has shoehorned some abstract nouns into a word that sounds vaguely positive, completely losing sight of the original intention. Are they telling you that their values ‘just happened’ to fall into that acronym? Actually, what happens is that at least some of the values emerge from the acronym. That's bullshit.
How about this from a Cheshire voluntary group: FLUID - Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. Or another real example of a crap acronym: VALUE - this HR person actually went online as she could only think of Value Added….. and wanted others to fill the acronym out! They did, and she was delighted with, Value Added Local, User friendly Experience. What a load of puff. When values are created to fit a word you're engaging in an infantile exercise that treats employees like infants. Even worse is the use of middle letters, rendering the acronym, as an aide memoire, completely useless. Here’s a real example. It’s a cracker. PEOPLEPositive Spirit and Fun, HonEsty and Integrity, Opportunties Based on Merit, Putting the Team first, Lasting value for Clients and People, Excellence through Professionlism. One overlong, impossible to remember acronym with eleven nouns, and I love the way they have to use the ‘E’ in the middle of HonEsty to make it work. This, by the way, is from an HR consultancy.
It’s not that I hate acronyms (Abbreviated Coded Rendition OName Yielding MeaningS). They’re great as memorable cues. For example, I rather like ABC (Airways, Breathing, Circulation) in first aid. I also have a soft spot for funny acronyms, such as ALITALIA (Airplane Lands In Turin And Luggage In Ancona), BAAPS (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon) unbelievably a real organisation, and DIMWIT (Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Talking).… it’s just that I’m a fully paid up member of the AAAA, the Association Against Acronym Abuse. And let's just quietly forget Microsoft's 'Critical Update Notification Tool'.
Test 2: Alliteration test
You hear alliterative value lists all the time  - 'Imagination, Integrity, Innovation' (two organisations I know have this one set, clearly having cribbed it from the internet, or lists of 'C' words such as creativity, curiosity and collaborative. These are far too conveniently alliterative for my liking. The world is not intrinsically alliterative and if your list of values all start with the same letter - it's forced nonsense. 
Test 3: Negative test
Lists of values are often so obvious that they are hardly worth mentioning. Sure, you can say we all need to be 'Customer friendly' and so on. But who would say that being Customer unfriendly was ever on the cards? The ‘negation’ test is a useful filter. Ask whether any normal human being would deny having the stated opposite or negative value. If the answer is NO, it’s not a value but a basic, common sense belief. Human nature is a complex thing and people are too different to be corralled into value sets. Beware of BIG words like integrity, imagination, creativity, innovation…… If your values are simplistic platitudes – no one will care.
Test 4: Are they really values?
A value is something that determines a moral decision. Yet many organizational ‘values’ are not values at all. ‘Imagination’, for example, is not a moral value, neither I would argue is 'creativity'. I’m not sure that ‘Leadership’ is an intrinsic value, in the sense that Pol Pot was a leader. So, for this test, look at each value in turn and ask whether it really is a value or activity, competence or some other thing? 
Test 5: Diversity problem
There’s something odd about having diversity as a value within a non-diverse, fixed value set. Empirically, people have different sets of values. We know this from large-scale studies, such as the World Values' Survey, going since 1989, in over 100 countries. An organisation is likely to have a mix of nationalities and cultures; religious, secular, liberal, conservative, individualistic, communal. Imposing a single set of values from above may not fit with this diversity of cultures and values. If diversity of values matters, the imposition of a set of fixed values makes little sense. To live with diversity is to live with a diversity of values. At the Skill Summit, some companies seemed to imply that if you didn't fit in with their imposed values, they'd try to get you out. Really? When values become reasons to sack people, you've got to worry. Even the phrase 'Don't be a dick' worries me. Companies often have dicks in the workplace. So what? Lot's of very competent and talented people are 'dicks'. Elon Musk is a dick. Steve Jobs was a dick. Gates was a dick. Get over it. We're all different.
Test 6: Sniff test
It’s usually quite easy to expose the hypocrisy of an organisation that exhorts ‘values’ by looking at its a) tax affairs b) senior staff salaries, c) senior staff bonuses d) customer list e) behaviours. If the company plays the tax avoidance game using offshore tax arrangements, or transfer pricing – that’s almost every large tech company, Google, Apple, Amazon, Starbucks etc. etc. then add hypocrisy to their values. If the CEO earns a ridiculous amount of money but doesn’t pay a living wage to the people at the bottom, the value of their values is nil. To be more precise, if your company pays the CEO way more than x10 the salary of the lowest member of staff – question the values. If, as a bank or other organisation, you’ve missold, ripped people off and generally fiddled the markets, ripped off suppliers, don’t pay on time - don’t even mention values. I've worked in public, educational organisations and heard people rail against the private sector, while they send their kids to private schools - that's BS. Read Nagel's Equality and Partiality. It doesn't take long to work out that people's stated public values are often different from their personal values. The same with organisations. You get the idea. Subject your organisation to a sniff test. Take the values and really ask – of the people who have told you that they matter – whether they’re applied at the top of the organisation and in its financial dealings. 
In truth, everyone knows that values are actually marketing exercises, used by organisations as slogans. They have little to do with actual behaviour in organisations. They infantilise people, reduce them to ciphers. Ask the person in the street if large organisations have served society well in terms of values? Banks? Supermarket chains? Tax dodging tech companies? Tax dodging retailers like Next or Starbucks? Football organisations like FIFA? Football clubs in general? Athletics organisations? Political parties? Energy companies?Mobile hacking newspapers? Saville infested broadcasters? No. We have a crisis of values, caused by large organisational hubris and lobbying. They are the last place we, as people, look to for values. The ‘values’ obsession is just another example of overreach by HR. It keeps them occupied and gives everyone the sense that moral purpose has been served. It may even mask the reality of selfish behaviour. When I hear people discuss values, or see ‘values’ training, it’s like little-league religion. Lots of back-slapping and ‘aren’t we great’ type platitudes. We’re all different. It’s work not a moral crusade. To be honest, I find it all a bit hokey and patronising. A select group at the top come up with 'values' and we all have to march in step to those values, even though, as most of us know, the further up an organisation you go, the more rarified values become. People have values, organisations don’t.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Snapchat’s smart pivot into an AR company but is AR ready for learning?

Augmentation, in ‘augmented’ reality, comes in all shapes, layers and forms, from bulky headsets and glasses to smartphones. At present the market has been characterised by a mix of expensive solutions (Hololens), failures (Google Glass, Snap Spectacles) and spectacular successes (Pokemon Go, Snapchat Filters). So where is all of this going?
SnapChat has pivoted, cleverly, into being not just another messenger service, but the world’s largest Augmented Reality company. Its ‘filters’, that change every day, use face recognition (AI) and layered graphics to deliver some fun stuff and more importantly, advertising. It is a clever ploy, as it plays to the personal. You can use fun filters, create your own filter with a piece of dynamic art or buy one. It’s here that they’re building an advertising and corporate business on designed filters around events and products. That’s smart and explains why their valuation is stratospheric. Once you play around with Snapchat, you get why it’s such a big deal. As usual, it’s simple, useful, personal and compelling. With over 150 million users and advertising revenue model, that works on straight ads, sponsored filters and sponsored lenses (interactive filters), it has tapped into a market that simply never existed.
Snap Spectacles
Snap Spectacles was their interesting foray into the glasses augmented market – but more of a gimmick than realistic consumer product. Targeted only at Snapchat users, you can’t really wear them with regular glasses and all they do is record video – but, to be fair, they do that well. However, as with Google Glass, you feel like a bit of a twat. Not really a big impact product.
With its AI driven interfaces – point head, gesture or voice recognition, it is neat but at $3000 a pop – not really a commercial proposition for Microsoft. As for the ‘experience’, the limited rectangle, that is the field of view, is disappointing, and ‘killer’ applications absent. There have been games, Skype applications, 2D & 3D visualisations but nothing yet that really blows the mind – forget the idea of Sci-fi holograms, it’s still all a bit ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ in feel, still tethered and has a long way to go before being a viable product.
Magic Leap
Bit of a mystery still as they are a secretive lot. Despite having raised more than $1.4 billion from Google, Alibaba and Andreessen Horowitz, it has still to deliver whatever it is that they want to deliver. Mired in technical problems, they may still pull something out of the bag with their glasses release this year – but it seems you have to wear a belt with some kit attached. Watch this space, as they say, as it is nothing but an empty space for now.
Pokemon Go
We saw the way this market was really going with Pokemon Go, layers of reality on a smartphone. Photographic Camera layer, idealised graphic map layer, graphic Pokemon layer, graphic Pokestops layer, GPS layer, internet layer – all layered on to one screen into a compelling social and games experience. Your mind simply brings them altogether into one conscious, beautiful, blended reality – more importantly, it was fun. This may be where augmented reality will remain until the minaturisation of headsets and glasses get down to the level of contact lenses.
I still prefer the full punch VR immersive experience. AR, in its current form is a halfway house experience. The headset and glasses seem like a stretch for all sorts of reasons. You simply have to ask yourself, do I need all of this cost and equipment, to see a solar system float in space, when I can see it in 3D on my computer screen? There are clearly many situations in which one would want to ‘layer’ on to reality but in many learning situations, there may be simpler solutions.
So let’s look at specific learning outcomes that could be delivered and enhanced by Augmented Reality.
1. Explanations
Explanations, causes, rules, processes… delivered as text, audio, 2D, 3D images in physics, chemistry, biology, hydraulics, pneumatics, maths and so on. The superimposition of explanatory diagrams, arrows, flows and explanations, have obvious theoretical and practical applications, delivering explanations in the context of the real world. Performance support is another option with ‘contextual’ learning to increases retention & recall. The delivery of explanations, determined by your own personal needs and identified context is appealing in training.
2. Problem solving
Explore real places: museum, art gallery, virtual excursion, virtual experience, real factory and solve real problems in maths, science, language, historical, architectural and natural environment. This problem solving can be task driven in induction/on-boarding, fault finding, maintenance tasks, language learning and so on.
3. Learn by doing
We largely learn by doing but are largely taught while doing nothing. With a hands-free device you can return to more appropriate forms of learning by doing. Motion sensing & GPS helps enormously and you can’t fool it easily, which is useful in assessment. Do experiments/tasks in science, practical tasks and learn skills, cheap devices in AR could revolutionise vocational learning.
4. Social learning
Groups (Pokemobs) out in real world, searched & completed tasks showing that the social dimension in learning can be enhanced. AR, such as Hololens, does give you contact, via Skype, with others, so that they can draw and you see it appear on your display. So there are social possibilities.
5. Tutor-led
There are signs that Magic Leap have a tiny assistant that sits in your hand, then there’s Skype on AR, which can offer tutoring at a distance for groups of learners.
Tutor-led/assisted, with a real or created tutor (AI-driven bot or avatar) can make the learning more personal & adaptive.
6. Deliberate/spaced practice
Learning can be enhanced by deliberate practice. AR gives us the opportunity to practice, again and again, repeat a skill in different contexts, offer adaptive and tutor-led deliberate practice.
7. Simulations
Critical training for the police, fire & emergency with realistic augmentation of bombs, fires, damage and casualties is all possible. Control layers can be used to test & train simultaneously to deliver lessons about optimal tactics. Things can appear and happen in certain timeframes. Already used by NASA, closed, limited or open-world simulations are all possible.
8. Assessment
For vocational training one could test learners (uniquely identified) in real time as assessment would not be separate from performance. Assessment at a distance is also possible.
9. M-learning
As we saw with Pokemon Go and now with Snapchat filters, AR gives you a compelling reason to use your phone, a powerful, personal and portable AR device. It is AR that may open the floodgates to new and fascinating forms of m-learning.
10. Habitual learning
Mobile behaviour is highly habitual and AR could mean frictionless and more habitual learning. It opens up possibilities in informal learning, making blended learning and 70:20:10 realisable.
RR – Real Reality
But before you start, do the RR test – that’s Real Reality. It may be better to stick to the real physical world. Consciousness is, after all a form of augmented reality – it is reality reconstructed by the brain. A text or podcast allows us to layer in the imagination, a form of augmentation that can be more useful in learning than trite imagery. AR can be delivered via screens. You need to think carefully before letting this technology, especially in its immature form, lead you towards expensive projects that may be better delivered by more conventional technology.

Augmented reality is not one thing – it’s best seen as a way of layering, altering or interacting with reality. At present all the action is on smartphones. In a sense Google Maps and GPS-like applications are augmentations. Pokemon Go showed the potential, albeit with a flash in the pan application but it is Snapchat, with its filters that has had the most sustainable success. Their move towards augmentation has been clever and you can expect a lot more from them. I’m less convinced by Hololens and Google seems, once again, to have failed in product development with Google Glass, as there have been no further releases. As usual consumers are attracted by fun not functionality.

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