She's the reason you're able to work and chat from home.
If you've ever wondered how a Zoom call works, you might want to ask Marian Croak, Vice-President of Engineering at Google.
This is the woman who invented "Voice over Internet Protocol": the technology that has enabled entire workforces to continue to communicate and families and friends to remain in touch throughout 2020's lockdowns – and inevitably beyond.
It is a lifeline technology that was developed in the 1990s. Croak describes how at the time "many people were sceptical – and they were right for that time. But with a lot of work and a lot of testing and experimentation, you see what we've accomplished today."
She joined moderator, Eniola Mafe, Lead, Vision 2030 at World Economic Forum to talk alongside Schwab Foundation awardee, Lindiwe Matlali, Chief Executive Officer at Africa Teen Geeks and Schwab Foundation awardee at the Pioneers of Change Summit. They revealed insights into what it takes to innovate, why kids are an inspiration and how not fitting in can be an advantage.
Here's what they said.
Is the worst of times the best of times for innovation?
Croak spoke about history and seeing this moment in time as part of a trajectory of bursts of innovation that happen at difficult times. "There are scientific revolutions where people have these amazing paradigm shifts. It typically happens at periods of great turmoil – everyone is very motivated for something new and something to alleviate the chaos."
In my own personal life, most of what I've done that has an impact on others is typically at times of stress and difficulty. I think we can benefit from this horrible time in history.
—Marian Croak, Vice-President of Engineering at Google
If at first you don't succeed, what's next?
Both women spoke of hard work and determination. Matlali said, "You are often focused on arrival – but the journey is just as important. The only way to get doors to open is to be impressive and work so hard that you can't be ignored."
While for Croak, it is about having the right mindset and the confidence to know that you can fix things that are broken.
"You don't have to be a victim of trouble. You can rise above problems and fix them. In the journey to fix them, it involves failure. Things evolve and you have to keep experimenting and perfecting them."
She says the current situation might appear to be a kind of stasis, but that things can and will change because human beings have the power to imagine different scenarios.
"Inventors are just humans. Anyone can have innovative ideas. But we have to share those ideas and collaborate with each other so that they can be realized."
How do you get a seat at the tech table?
With characteristic modesty, Croak admitted that "leaving a pathway for others to step in" is important, but also revealed that she is quite comfortable with being an outsider.
"Many times I've felt it's really to our advantage that we don't fit in and that we don't have that seat at that table. That to me is often a benefit because it allows us to step back and really observe in quite an objective way as to where the gaps are and what's needed for change. Being part of the group spoils your perspective because there's a need to confirm, but invention requires you to be different."
But she conceded, "It's fine to be the only one – but you don't want to remain in that position – you want others to come along. I make sure that the generation behind me can climb the ladder as well."
For Matlali, the example of Marian Croak – a woman of colour succeeding in the tech world – has been significant.
"I have to sell myself all the time," she said, "If you are black and a woman, you have to prove that you are competent. Moving forward there are ways that we can change that – making sure that people like (Marian) are visible will make it easier for someone like me."
If you are black and a woman, you have to prove that you are competent.
—Lindiwe Matlali, Chief Executive Officer at Africa Teen Geeks
What can kids teach tech innovators?
Wonder and naivete are powerful tools. Croak argues that children have rich imaginations – which is the fuel of invention. "You need to be childlike. A little naïve and not inhibited by what's possible."
Matlali's work with disadvantaged teenagers brings her directly into this world, where she sees that "children are passionate but hopeful for the future. For them, everything is possible. You want kids to have the imagination and passion for them to achieve their dreams."
Croak said her motivation for 2021 was to keep her own childlike curiosity going, forgetting about her personal circumstances and focusing on the "painpoints".
What's the biggest opportunity for change in a post-pandemic world?
"The most significant thing that I see that will cause things to change – and we hope that they will – is the increased awareness of inequities." Croak urged the tech community to zero in on that "gift" to see what the world is truly like and where the gaps are. "To address that huge amount of inequity."
Matlali's work in education in Africa is one such gap. She said, "knowing that no matter how small the contributions I am making – it makes a difference. Even if it helps one child to have the opportunities that I've had – it all came through education. For me, that's what I want to try do and make sure that as many children as possible can break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage."
Recent research shows that brain teasers don't make you smarter and don't belong in job interviews because they don't reflect real-world problems.
- There is little research to prove that brain games improve general cognition or slow cognitive decline. Rather they simply make you better at playing that specific brain game.
- Brain teasers are a useless tool during job interviews as they can't predict how an interviewee will perform in real world tasks relevant to the job role.
- Exercise, nutrition, socialization, and meditation are probably better brain boosters.
Brain training apps and programs have sky-rocketed into a billion-dollar market over the past decade. While the promise of revving up intelligence is certainly alluring, the research as to whether or not they actually do anything for your cognitive abilities is dubious.
Why brain training apps dont boost cognition
A 2017 study conducted by a team of psychologists at Florida State University sought to learn whether brain training games could boost "working memory" in subjects, and consequently the cognitive abilities of reasoning, memory, and processing speed. One group of participants played a brain-training video game called "Mind Frontiers," while another group played crossword games or number puzzles.
"Our findings and previous studies confirm there's very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way," said Wally Boot, an expert on age-related cognitive decline at FSU who was involved in the study. Another 2017 report monitoring the cognitive skills, brain activity, and decision-making abilities of young adults, concluded that brain-training games "do not boost cognition."
What brain games likely do is make you better at playing that specific brain game. Learning is the result of two potential processes that happen to neuron cells in the brain. One is called "long term potentiation," in which already existing connections between neurons are strengthened by firing together in reaction to incoming signals. The other is called "dendritic spine growth." In this process, neurons form new connections with each other by wiring together through a process in which the surface area of dendrites (antenna-like structures that make up the receiving end of a neuron) increases allowing for more neurons to connect with one another.
In short, "cells that fire together wire together," and when you play brain games, neural connections in the brain network that are engaged while performing the tasks in the game are strengthened. Thus, you may become a genius at solving a particular word puzzle, but there is little evidence to suggest that you will become any better at other puzzles, let alone enhance your cognitive abilities in general. And because those puzzles are so decontextualized from situations you would likely encounter in real life, they are probably useless.
This was backed up by a 2018 study in which neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario, Canada, investigated if the cognitive skills acquired from brain-training tasks could be transferred to other tasks that engage the same brain regions. They found no evidence to support that idea. In fact, video games may do more for your brain.
Brain teasers don't reflect future job performanceGoogle logo
So brain puzzles may not do much to boost IQ, but does the ability to work through brain teasers predict intellect or job performance? Afterall, Google, once notorious for its use of brain teasers in job interviews, decided they were "a complete waste of time" years ago. (A list of some of the tech giant's interview questions can be found here, for those curious.)
"They don't predict anything," Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times in 2013. "They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart."
The reason is that while the brain teasers may measure how fast an individual can generate a smart or accurate solution to an abstract problem under pressure, they have little to do with future problems the employee will encounter in the job. Furthermore, the environment in which the brain teaser is asked favors certain personality traits that may be irrelevant to job performance and which do not necessarily reflect intelligence. For example, an introvert whose nerves may impede his or her ability to communicate a quick and creative solution in the context of a job interview. Or, perhaps, a detail, sensory-oriented individual whose problem-solving strength lies in tangible and immediate situations rather than abstract imaginings.
In short, an employee who can come up with high quality ideas and solutions in situations relevant to a specific job role is far more valuable than one who can come up with a fast idea to a brain teaser that has nothing to do with the company's goals.
Better brain boosters
The science on brain training games and teasers is a mixed bag. However, if you're looking for more effective ways to boost your cognition or prevent cognitive decline, here are some that are better backed by research:
- Run or walk. Several studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that govern thinking and memory are greater in volume in individuals who regularly exercise as opposed to those who don't. What's more, some research has found that engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months to a year is correlated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions. Most of this research has focused on aerobic exercise.
- Meditate. Multiple studies have shown that regular mindfulness meditation increases grey matter in the brain, which equates with more neuronal activity and better performance, in certain areas. Research has also found that mindfulness meditation improves cognition.
- Socialize. Frequent social activity may help to delay cognitive decline in old age and boost current cognition. This is because social situations and the development of relationships requires our minds to engage multiple neural networks that are relevant to healthy daily function.
- Prioritize nutrition. "Brain-boosting" foods like fish, dark chocolate, antioxidant-rich berries, and foods with B vitamins like eggs can help build and repair brain cells.
Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of prehistoric animals and NASA artifacts that are viewable for free with a smartphone.
- The exhibits are viewable on most smartphones through Google's free Arts & Culture app.
- In addition to prehistoric animals, the new exhibits include NASA artifacts and ancient artwork.
- The Arts & Culture app also lets you project onto your walls famous paintings on display at museums around the world.
Many of the world's museums are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now you don't need to leave the couch to see some of the creatures on display at institutions like Moscow's State Darwin Museum and London's Natural History Museum. Google's Arts & Culture app just added a suite of new exhibits that can be viewed in augmented reality through your smartphone.
After installing the app on an ARCore-supported Android device, an iPhone, or an iPad, users can project the creatures onto any surface, take photos and videos, change their size, and move them around the room.
One of the strangest new exhibits is the Cambropachycope, a tiny crustacean from the Cambrian Period that has one of the world's oldest preserved compound eyes. Here's a look:
Google Arts & Culture
Other animals on display include:
- Opabinia — A 500-million-year-old arthropod with five eyes
- Skeleton of the blue whale – The largest animal to ever exist on Earth
- Spotted trunkfish — A fish with an unusually strong carapace made from thick hexagonal scale plates called scutes
- Aegirocassis — A 480-million-year old marine animal, believed to be the oldest large filter feeder, which existed hundreds of millions of years before whales and sharks
Google Arts & Culture
The Silicon Valley titan has promised scholarships for its tech-focused certificate courses alongside $10 million in job training grants.
American has a "middle skills" gap. Good jobs requiring a high school diploma have contracted since the 1990s, while workers wielding a college education continue to excel. But according to a report out of Georgetown University, two out of three entry-level jobs today require some training and education beyond high school but not a bachelor's degree. This demand for middle-skilled workers has resulted from the assimilation of work by the digital revolution, while people have been outpaced by the technology they rely on.
As Stephane Kasriel, former CEO of Upwork, wrote for the World Economic Forum: "Our current education system adapts to change too slowly and operates too ineffectively for this new world. […] Skills, not college pedigree, will be what matters for the future workforce" To bridge the skills gap, many employers and institutions have turned to online education and other non-traditional models. One such employer is Google.
Unable to find enough qualified candidates to fill necessary positions, the Silicon Valley titan created its own certification course of Coursera to teach people IT support skills. The program proved so successful that earlier this week, Google announced it would expand the program to include three new courses. It's also offering scholarships to help in-need people enroll.
An improved educational pipeline?
A chart showing the increase and decrease of "good jobs" based on level of education required.
The new suite of courses will train students in skills necessary for data analyst, project manager, and UX design positions. While Google has released no specifics on these courses, they will likely follow the current certificate course template. This means they won't require a degree to enroll, will be entirely online, and will be taught by Google Staff.
Like other massive open online courses (or MOOCs), they will likely be self-paced. According to Coursera, Google's current IT support course takes between three to six months to complete at $49 a month. To offset those costs, Google is also offering 100,000 need-based scholarships.
"College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn't need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions—from enhanced vocational programs to online education—to help America recover and build," wrote Kent Walker, SVP of Global Affairs at Google, in a release.
By the courses' end, students will have created hands-on projects to build their portfolio and will receive a certificate of completion. In the release, Walker states that Goggle will consider the certification as "equivalent of a four-year degree" for job seekers. The current IT support course has credit recommendation from the American Council on Education, meaning it may be possible for students to translate the certificate into some college credits. No word on whether the new courses will also have credit recommendation.
"Launched in 2018, the Google IT Certificate program has become the single most popular certificate on Coursera, and thousands of people have found new jobs and increased their earnings after completing the course," Walker added.
As part of the initiative, Google.org, the company's charity branch, has committed $10 million in job training grants. The grants will go to Google's nonprofit partners, such as YWCA, JFF, and NPower, to help women, veterans, and underrepresented groups obtain jobs skills relevant to today's in-demand positions.
An improved educational pipeline?
The need for middle-skills will grow as the American workforce continues to digitize at an extraordinary rate. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2002 just 5 percent of jobs studied—which covered 90 percent of the workforce—required high-digital skills while 40 percent required medium-level skills. By 2016, that percentage rose to 23 and 48 respectively. In the same period, jobs requiring low-digital skills fell precipitously, from 56 to 30 percent. Beyond rapid job growth and competitive advantage, those with the skills are set to reap the economic rewards.
But more needs to be done.
As of this writing, more than 275,000 people have enrolled in Google's IT Support course, but it's unclear how many companies will accept the certificate as proof of capability. While Google and its Employer Consortium, a group of employers who connect with Google to find prospective candidates, may consider the certificate equivalent to a four-year degree, MOOC certifications lack the universality of either associate's or bachelor's degrees. Without mainstream acceptance, graduates may be contending with each other within a puddle of prospective companies, not the vast, oceanic marketplace of corporate America.
And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't halted but accelerated digitalization as companies widely adopt new technological trends to survive. Many of the 20 million unemployed Americans may suddenly need to upskill or even find their jobs outsourced to the digital realm. They'll need a quick, yet employer recognized, means to acquire new skills to help find work.
Ten million dollars will buy Google—a company valued at one trillion dollars—a nice commemorative brick in the path to a solution and hopefully help many lives. But we have many miles of work to go.
Google is probably wrong about your health condition.
- Thirty-six different international mobile and internet-based symptom checkers gave a correct diagnosis as the top result only 36 percent of the time.
- Web advice on when and where to seek healthcare treatment was correct 49 percent of the time.
- It's been estimated that Google's health related searches approximate to 70,000 every minute.
All of us have done it. Prompted by a back ache, twitching body part, or perhaps the notice of a skin discoloration, we type in the symptoms for an instant diagnosis by Google. After all, it's right there in the palm of our hand and, given a solid WiFi connection, always available for consultation. It's been estimated that there are around 70,000 health related searches on Google every minute.The internet gives a dubious diagnosis though. According to new Edith Cowan University (ECU) research recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia, online symptom checkers are wrong about two-thirds (or around 67 percent) of the time.
Troubling research findings
The study analyzed 36 different international mobile and internet-based symptom checkers and discovered that they gave a correct diagnosis as the number one result only 36 percent of the time, and as one of the top three results 52 percent of the time. It was also found that the web advice given on when and where to seek healthcare treatment only had a 49 percent accuracy.
Michella Hill, a ECU Masters student and the lead author of the study, warned that these findings should indicate to people to be cautious before self-diagnosing via the web.
"While it may be tempting to use these tools to find out what may be causing your symptoms, most of the time they are unreliable at best and can be dangerous at worst," she said in an Edith Cowan University press release.
One major problem with the quality of online symptom checkers that Hill highlighted is the lack of government regulation and data assurance.
"There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data," she pointed out. It was also discovered that many of the international sites didn't include ailments specific to certain regions like Australia. They also didn't list services relevant to Australia, where the study was conducted.
“Cyberchondria” is on the riseGiphy
Hill noted that while we all are guilty of being 'cyberchondriacs' after feeling the first sign of a potential health hiccup, online symptom checkers should be used with skepticism as they lack necessary context in their health diagnosis and advice.
"The reality is these websites and apps should be viewed very cautiously as they do not look at the whole picture - they don't know your medical history or other symptoms," said Hill. "For people who lack health knowledge, they may think the advice they're given is accurate or that their condition is not serious when it may be."
While online symptom checkers like WebMD or Healthline tend to generate a questionable diagnosis, the research found that internet triage advice telling a user when and if to see a medical professional tends to be more accurate. Particularly in the case of medical emergencies. Hill noted that advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60 percent of the time. However, for non-emergency cases that dropped to 30 to 40 percent accuracy.
"Generally the triage advice erred on the side of caution, which in some ways is good but can lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don't need to," explained Hill.
The right way to use online medical sources
That's not to say that online resources have no place at all in your individual healthcare. Though medical sites with online symptom checkers are never a replacement for an in-person physician, they can provide helpful information after you have received an official diagnosis from a medical professional.
"We're also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic," said Hill. "For example, the UK's National Health Service is using these tools to monitor symptoms and potential 'hotspot' locations for this disease on a national basis."
In other words, you can continue to Google your symptoms at your own mental health risk, but odds are the first result isn't your problem.