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One More Thing: Siri will replace Learning

Like many others, I was not very enthusiastic about the launch event of the iPhone 4S. The expectations where simply too high, and the whole event seemed to lack the usual energy. One day later the world learned why. 


Now, amplified through the thought process triggered by Steve Job’s passing I think most of us, including myself, missed Steve’s last big “one more thing”. We were waiting for a new, thinner, faster, feature rich device. But this time it was all about the software and it might become his biggest coup. 

I believe, Siri has the potential to change some corner stones in society and that Siri or software like Siri will have a huge impact on education and how people learn. Or better, what people are going to learn at all. 

First of all, it is not about what Siri can do today, though I have to say it seems to be pretty capable already. In case you did not watch the iPhone 4S launch yet or read about it, Siri is a personal assistant software that comes with the new iPhone. The huge leap forward is that you don’t need to learn voice commands to control the software like you need for most car entertainment systems or GPS devices. With Siri you can ask natural questions like “Do I need to wear a raincoat today?” or “I would like to listen to some Guns’n’Roses.”

One of the benchmarks for computer design has always been to create a technology that would enable the user to interact with the device in the most natural way possible. That’s why the iPhone was such a landmark. In the presentation Jobs asked how to control this touchscreen device. No one wants a stylus, and humans are born with the perfect pointing device, even ten of them.

Voice control is clearly the other component and many have tried before. But before Siri there has not been a really good working software. You needed to train your software to your voice and then you needed to learn the commands. Think about it, most people don’t even know keyboard shortcuts, why should they then learn special commands for voice control?

Hence, Siri makes it very easy and convenient for us to interact with our mobile device for a lot of our daily tasks from scheduling a meeting to baking a cake.

Now lets go a step further. I already wrote about the fact that the search business is slowly replaced by the answer business. People expect to get answers to their questions from the Internet. They search for “What is...” “How to...” “Where do I...” and so on. Siri is linked to Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia already today, hence the better the software gets over time, the more likely Siri will have an answer for you.

No need to open a web-browser, go to your favorite search engine, type in the question, choose a link and read the article. It’s going to be like talking to a really smart person that has an answer to everything.

Remember when you were a kid and asked your parents or grand parents a question? In most cases they had an answer and you thought they know everything. I think everyone of us thought at one point in our lives that we had the smartest parents of all. The older we got, the more we realized that this was not the case. Imagine you had a device as a kid that seemed to know everything. Would you still ask your parents as often?

Before, there were books or other means of getting information, the younger generation learned from the elders by interacting and asking them. We live in a society that lives in the belief that we have access to all information we need.

Over time it has become less important to ask your parents or grandparents about their lives, what they learned and what we can learn from it. Knowledge about many things not eminent to modern society or thought to be not eminent got lost already. The same is true for skills, especially how to solve manual tasks. We tend to say, it requires an expert for that.

Now, also on the information level, we might ask what the motivation is to learn information in school when you have an all knowing device in your pocket? It even knows more than the teacher who might not have an answer to a specific question right away. In such a scenario, what will the relevance of a teacher be?

To give you a rather banal example. I don’t have to percent calculation every day anymore. Certainly, I learnt it in school and it’s not very complicated but on the few occasions I have to use it, every time I find myself figuring which formula to apply instead of having the result instantly. I will most certainly just ask my personal assistant software what the answer is. It’ll save me time and effort but I know I’m going to lose the ability of figuring out percent calculation more sooner than later.

To leave you with a last thought considering the political dimension of controlling information. Who is going to be in charge of the information people receive?

As we just saw with the shutdown of Wikipedia Italy, you don’t have to look far for governments threatening the free flow of information. If the majority of citizens rely on the information they get from their personal, omniscient assistant device the organisation who is in control of the information will be in very strong position.

Picture: Apple

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

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Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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