Scene 5: Lou Rossini and Tondal

In which Lou Rossini, friend of Scott, grudgingly looks at Scott’s recommendation and then goes his own way.

Future learning systems will help us get what we want, the way we want it.

Scott's pointers were usually better than average, and so Lou decided to investigate. But, as was his habit, first Lou looked at reviews and scores. Only one of his "inner-circle" had previously watched the piece, and Lou was annoyed that it was in the middle of a series.

Lou was the type of learner who worked with the assistant software much, much more heavily than most kids. He spent hours creating psychological profiles of various content recommenders. He set up long lists of rules for things he did and didn't like, things he was interested in and things he was never interested in. He rarely watched or read anything without first satisfying himself that it wouldn't be a waste of his precious time.

In fact, his teachers had taken notice and kept an eye on this habit. For some students it was an obsessive-compulsive problem. When a student stopped achieving objectives and instead spent days on end reviewing bios and reverse-engineering "bad" recommendations made by the assistant, then intervention was needed. For other such students, though, the resulting payoff from these filtering efforts was many long, productive torrents of learning. For still others, the apparent obsession sometimes revealed a gift for analytical programming.

Lou was connected to a learning group called Scientoologists, which had a handful of geographic subgroups, and Lead Discussants with leering attitudes that Lou liked. Lou somberly mused about some of the highest-promoted discussants and what it was each of them really stood for, as though Lou were a neophyte monk wondering which of the arch deacons were most likely to ascend to greatness.

Lou Tondal

When Lou finally persuaded himself of the Tondal piece's potential merit, he watched it, and was a bit underwhelmed. Some other intriguing links came up afterwards, though, and so he decided he wasn't abandoning the topic yet. He got up and meandered towards the kitchen, his thoughts jumbling between whether to rate the piece and the mental image of a classmate named Maria, on whom he had a huge crush.

After he had polished off a box of crackers, he came back and scouted around. After his usual due diligence, he started an animated piece about Tondal-Earth communication. It turned out to be a "branching" piece that provided him next-topic choices at various points in the audiovisual narrative.

"…The earliest communication exchanges included cooperative efforts about technical protocol. Image data was easy to encode, and proved to be trivial to interpret on both sides. This enabled initial streams of pictographic symbols that linguistic experts on both planets were able to bootstrap into negotiation of a shared lexical standard.

Our interstellar conversation has a fourteen-year lag. And thus, question-answer cycles are twenty-eight years. In both directions, however, information streams are sent continuously. The communication includes "encyclopedic" information about the two respective societies. It also includes extended responses to all past questions and requests received up to that point. All messages have unique numeric identifiers, enabling message writers to make clear references in subsequent responses.

Select next topic(s):

      A. Early design of the pictographic symbols
      B. Protocols for information exchange
      C. Who decided what to say to Tondal
      D. Surprising questions from Tondal

Lou moused over each option for a glimpse of each summary, then picked C. The events leading to Earth's first transmission and Tondal's first confirmatory responses were briefly described and diagrammed. There was immediate euphoria on Earth, and then global debates.

…Soon afterwards, an international defense commission was assembled to establish communication rules. Its leadership council included game-theory specialists, statisticians, physicists, and biologists. Simultaneously, though, many academic journals devoted to the topic quickly sprouted, enabling a wide range of serious voices in the public discussion.

Only a few cranks essayed about future invasion, infiltration, or pillaging of Earth by Tondals, and schools were required to paint a safe, "friendly" portrait of them. Yet, given that the interaction will last over millennia, measured voices stressed that a deep understanding of Tondal motives—both present and future—was merited before providing "sensitive" information to them.

There was consensus, regardless, on the need for simplicity and veracity in communication with Tondal. Mutual trust needed to be cultivated, and any distortion or misdirection would eventually be detected. Still, though, there was no need to reveal everything at once, and no immediate need to reveal Earth's defensive capabilities. After several queries from Tondal, Earth sent a statement to them:

    "For a time, let us avoid the topic of war."

Lou paused the animation and reflected. This was a lot to digest, and he knew he should stop and return later. Perhaps there was something else in the pantry. Mom was in DC this week, so it was open season.

Different learners like to get information differently. Lou Rossini is very self-directed and purposive. Others tend to like wherever the program leads them.

A couple things are depicted here.  One is setup of the learning environment.  Another is “branching.”  A word about each.

“Learning setup” doesn’t much exist today, because there aren’t the necessary content metadata and systems supporting it. One present-day precursor is the rather-inscrutable “privacy” or “settings” pages we access for Google/Facebook/etc. One can at least imagine such pages becoming more user friendly and offering a much greater range of preferences and objectives. Another type of precursor is exemplified by Apple’s News app, which guides the user to go through lists of predefined news categories and indicate which ones are of interest.

Branching is in fact a very general concept that takes many different forms. It was first visualized by a researcher named Vannevar Bush as far back as 1945. The discussion widened when a product called HyperCard emerged in the 1980s, hyperlinks appeared on web pages in the 1990s, and ASK systems at Northwestern University incorporated multimedia into new interactive structures. The core idea of branching has to do with what is called non-linearity: the human mind naturally follows highly personal associations, and instead of presenting content in a one-size-fits-all “linear” format, online material should accommodate different users’ unique trains of thought.

Such building blocks will continue to evolve with each passing decade, leading to really advanced learning systems that anticipate each learner’s needs and provide paths well-suited to every learner’s idiosyncratic questions, interests, and goals.

You’re seeing that content and interactions generally come in short bursts, which is easier for learners to “ingest.” What's not easy to depict here is that there is hardly any text – it's all multimedia (audio narration, visual animations). This way requires dramatically less effort to learn, and more quickly produces more accurate mental representations. (Meaning, you get deep insights.)


cast of characters