Information Age Education
   Issue Number 36
February, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." (Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic, July 1945.) [Bold added for emphasis.]

Recent issues of this newsletter have addressed some ideas about human intelligence versus computer intelligence and human creativity versus computer creativity. In both cases, we stressed major differences between human and computer capabilities, but that computer capabilities are useful to humans and they continue to grow.

The previous issue and this current issue of the newsletter address the topic of human and computer memory.


Vannevar Bush and Tim Berners-Lee

Vannevar Bush (1890–1974) served as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the United Stated during World War II. He coordinated research efforts of some 6,000 scientists who were working on war-related projects.

The Vannevar Bush quote given above addresses the challenge of how to make effective use of the rapidly growing totality of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics information. His article—written about 65 years ago—is often cited as the first step in the eventual development of the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee (1955–) is considered to be the inventor of the Web. See http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/. The Web first became functional in 1990 and it is now the world’s largest library. One way to think about the Web is that it is an auxiliary brain designed to supplements one’s memory storage and cognitive processing capabilities.


Computer Storage and Processing

A human brain has neurons that are both storage and processing units. In contrast, electronic digital computer storage and processing are handled by two different types of devices. Computer memory is typically designed to effectively deal with the storage and retrieval of bits or bytes (8-bit chunks) of data. For less than $150, we can now purchase an easily portable disk drive that can store a trillion bytes of data. That is enough memory to store about a million medium-length novels.

Today’s electronic digital computers contain one or more central processing units (CPUs). A CPU is designed to rapidly and accurately carry out a detailed list of instructions stored in computer memory. These instructions may involve arithmetic calculations, but also process collections of bytes of data, such as occurs when a person is using a word processor or doing computer graphics.

A computer brain, containing one or more CPUs and various forms of memory, is quite different from a human brain. Human and computer brains each have important capabilities that the other does not have. In many problem-solving and task-accomplishing situations, the two types of brains working together can far surpass the capabilities of either one working alone. See http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.

As a simple example, suppose that your authors are interested in finding Web-based materials that mention both of their names. A Google search of "David OR Dave Moursund" "Robert OR Bob Sylwester" takes about .4 seconds to identify somewhat over 60 hits.


Increasing a Brain’s Capabilities

A healthy human infant’s brain has some built-in capabilities (for example to run the autonomic systems that keep heart and lungs functioning) as well as a considerable capacity to learn. This brain changes substantially as it grows toward maturity—which usually occurs by age 25 of so. Growth and learning lead to substantial increases in a human brain’s capabilities. Some growth of new neurons continues even after a brain reaches full maturity. And, of course, a brain changes substantially over the years through informal and formal education and life experiences. See the 23-minute video at http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain.html.

The brains of computer systems have been substantially improved over the years, and a rapid rate of improvement will continue far into the future. Here are four key ideas. The capabilities of a computer brain is improved by:
  1. Making it run faster or by appropriately combining several CPUs. By the year 2020, people may well be building supercomputers that contain a million CPUs.
  2. Adding more very fast, internal memory and adding a large amount of less fast memory such as magnetic disk, optical disk, and flash memory.
  3. The development of more and better software. Search engines such as Google are one very important example of this software.
  4. Improvements in computer networking.
If you own an Internet-connected computer, its capabilities are steadily increasing even though you are not buying additional hardware and software.

The US Library of Congress is the world’s largest library in terms of storage of physical (hard copy) materials. However, the Web contains many tens of thousands times the amount of content as the Library of Congress. Note that the Library of Congress has considerable content that cannot be accessed electronically. This is gradually changing as the Library of Congress and others are working to digitize such materials.


Auxiliary Memory For Humans

Vannevar Bush foresaw the need for auxiliary memory that was personal and very convenient to access. (Interlibrary loan of hard copy books and journals is a great idea—but it is very slow relative to accessing a book via the Web.)

Over the years, digital storage has increased quite rapidly in capacity and decreased quite rapidly in cost per byte of storage. Digital storage allows one to make exact duplicates of a file and to quickly move files around the world. It also makes possible search computer search engines such as Google.

Here are two examples of futuristic-looking uses of computers. Gordon Bell has had a very long and productive career as a computer designer and engineer. In recent years, he has worn a body-mounted computerized video and audio recorder to record his everyday life. See http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/110/head-for-detail.html. Bell makes use of his recording system both for research into the idea of recording one’s life and to be able to review and share with others past events from his life.

Ray Kurzweil is a very successful inventor and futurist. He hopes to live long enough so that it is possible to download his brain into a computer system. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Kurzweil. It seems quite likely that the storage and processing capabilities of a computer’s brain will eventually exceed those of a human brain.

For other future forecasts, see http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.

Educational Implications and Recommendations

An intact human memory storage system has a huge capacity. Information comes into our brain through our external sensors as well as through internal sensors and subconscious or conscious processing of memories we already have. Our brain has the ability to store data, information, knowledge, and wisdom in a manner so that we can retrieve and use it.

Unfortunately, our storage and retrieval system is not computer-like in its speed, storage capacity, and ease and fidelity of retrieval. A human cannot read a book, memorize it exactly word for word, and thoroughly index it in a few seconds. For many different types of manipulation of data, information, and knowledge, a human brain is both very slow and inaccurate relative to the brain of a computer system.

It is clear that we want an education system that helps the brains of students to increase their capabilities and helps them to input, store, learn to retrieve, and learn to make use of a great deal of data, information, knowledge, information, and wisdom. However, we also want an educational system that prepares students to make effective use of the very large and rapidly growing capabilities of computers.

One way to measure progress in two-brain education is to measure the extent to which students are assessed in an open computer, open connectivity mode. Many students now do their homework in this environment. However, we have barely scratched the surface in terms of assessing students in this environment.

The authors of this Information Age Education Newsletter are prolific writers. In some sense, each views his writings as a type of auxiliary memory. David Moursund uses the metaphor “electronic filing cabinet.” He views his Wiki as his professional/academic auxiliary memory. For details, see http://iae-pedia.org/Digital_Filing_Cabinet/Overview. With the use of various search engines, he can quickly retrieve from his Websites and personal computers almost everything he has written and much of what he has read in recent years. Similarly, both of your authors routinely use the Web to draw on a significant part of the accumulated knowledge of the human race.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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