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This Is Your Brain on the Internet: Episode 4

This Is Your Brain on the Internet: Episode 4

. . . In which we identify galaxies, Ananth loses sleep thinking about Jeff Hawkins? On INTELLIGENCE . . . Michael brings Jeff Hawkins to TYBI . . . and blogger Jennifer is invited to lecture the faculty on blogging . . .

It?s been busy in TYBI. And for a class that makes a point about attention, focus, collaboration, and interactivity, it has been a pretty interesting two weeks of attention, focus, collaboration, and interactivity.

Example #1: The HASTAC Scholars conducted a very interesting online Forum on ?What?s Going On? in the world of digital media, learning, new technologies. In the middle of the Forum, a side-conversation happened on blogging and the efficacy of having students blog. I offered my opinion on the subject but felt odd pronouncing on behalf of my students. So I invited them to offer their two cents. Jennifer did. A week went by. Then the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke happened to write to me to ask if I would be willing to make a presentation to the faculty about blogging and I said I would be out of town but I referred them to the really smart comments on blogging by several faculty and students. Next I heard, the very smart folks at CIT had invited Jennifer to come talk to the faculty on blogging. Now we?re talking!! I can?t imagine a better person to help faculty understand the interactive dynamics of blogging than Jennifer. And, as Jennifer wrote me, it was great to participate in a public discussion on blogging and then almost instantly have an impact on the topic of blogging. Isn?t that exactly how Web 2.0 is supposed to work?

If you aren?t able to attend the CIT Forum, you can read Jennifer?s comment at:, Post #19

Example #2: We are moving from ?This Is Your Brain? to the ?. . . On the Internet? part of our course. To illustrate ideas behind collaboration, smart mobs, the wisdom of crowds, many-to-many collaboration, and other forms of collective intelligence, we all brought laptops and spent about fifteen minutes identifying galaxies on Galaxy Zoo, the crowdsourcing tool produced by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey people. Identifying celestial objects when you are not a scientist, having tens of thousands of other people engaged in the enteprise, has not only yielded new identifications but has resulted in some changed paradigms. Why? Because non-experts don't see what experts see. Sometimes that is not a good thing . . . but sometimes, and when it is many non-experts seeing what the experts have missed, it is a revelation and sometimes a paradigm shift is required. Cynthia posed the salient question: "How do we know if we're wrong?" in the midst of her galaxy labelling and that started us off on a very important conversation about credibility, collectivity, and Internet crowdsourcing of ideas. Also more on attention, and the way what we attend to gives us focus and also impairs what else we are capable of seeing.


Thus the move from "This Is Your Brain" to ". . . On the Internet." The transitional writer for our conversation is the brilliant AI scientist, Palm Pilot inventor, and director of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute Jeff Hawkins, whose On Intelligence is a high-stakes, take-no-prisoners provocation on the neocortex. Drawing from research on attention blindness and in many other areas, he focuses on prediction and behavior as the chief marker of intelligence: "The brain uses vast amounts of memory to create a model of the world. Everything you know and have learned is stored in this model. The brain uses this memory-based model to make continuous predictions of future events. It is the ability to make predictions about the future that is the crux of intelligence." He's right. And he doesn't think we're going to get very far on "artificial intelligence" until we understand "intelligence" in this behavior, predictive, attention-dependent model. He argues that we've had more than enough experiments, produced far too much data, and what we need is a a major, revolutionary new theory of the brain around which we can model intelligence (human and artificial). I agree.


For the discussion of On Intelligence, we had four students on tap to lead us instead of our usual two because the Galaxy Zoo crowdsourcing attention-blindness discussion during the previous class (mea culpa) had gotten a bit too expansive on the relationship between ?This is Your Brain? . . . and On the Internet? and, well, I had managed to talk away a good bit of the class. It's an occupational hazard of profs. I avoid it some of the time. Some. But not this one. So for our class on Hawkins, with four student leaders, I promised to just listen, for an entire class, and hear what the students would say. (Note to professorial self: talk less, listen more.) It was a stunning class. Everyone had really interesting insights to offer, the conversation sizzled. And Ananth was on fire! He had talked to a relative who was an AI scientist and was up most of the night thinking about intelligence. Michael, Chris, Jennifer, Steffi, Cynthia, and others who I should also be remembering (feel free to comment below, dear class!) were chiming in so fast I couldn?t keep up with the notes. It was (to use an overused word that I overuse a lot, esp when talking about TYBI) amazing.

But that was only the prelude.


Michael found out that Jeff Hawkins himself was going to be participating in Duke?s Grand Challenges conference in Durham. Michael introduced himself to Jeff Hawkins and told him about our class. Jeff Hawkins altered his travel plans so he could come and talk to our class. Okay, you have to admit that is amazing. It is not often the case that celebrity thinkers are so generous with their time, so curious and eager to interact with young people. (On behalf of ISIS 120: Thank you, Jeff Hawkins! And thanks, Michael.)


Unfortunately, Jeff Hawkins' visit occured when I was away but unless they are all engaged in a collective joke-on-the-prof, I really do believe that Jeff Hawkins came to the Franklin Center and talked to our ISIS 120 Seminar. (I?m told there may even be a podcast I can listen to after break.) I have heard that it was a marvelous conversation. After break, I know I will hear lots more about it. But in the meantime, I do like the interactivity of these two examples. Expecially as, for the next part of the class, our readings will be generated by the topics that students will be doing research on and presenting to us as a class. (The mantra of those presentations: please do not bore yourselves and your classmates, never mind the prof! It should be a very interesting few weeks ahead.)

Coming Attractions: We had a snowday. (Snow!) So Professor Tony O?Driscoll, who teaches in the Fuqua School of Business and is a consultant on collaboration and disrupting conventional management styles by using virtual worlds, was supposed to be coming to our class that day to ?blow our minds? (I?m quoting Prof O?Driscoll) with some virtual world amazement. Instead, we had to postpone his visit because classes were cancelled. So he is coming in a couple of weeks. And it sounds like he'll be making use of the various screens and projectors and so forth in our tricked out IMPS room (Interactive Multimedia Project Space) over in the Franklin Center.


And, virtually, via Skype, Howard Rheingold (author of Smart Mobs and one of the visionaries of the Internet Age: he coined the term ?virtual community") is beaming in from California right after break.

Episode 5 promises to be just as exciting an installment of TYBI as Episode 4. Stay tuned!



For previous episodes, you can see: - TYBI 3 - TYBI 2 - TYBI 1, The Syllabus




Special thanks to Flickr community members for the images of Galaxy Zoo and Jeff Hawkins. Click on the images for full documentation.




That sounds like a fun, exciting course. In regards to not talking more in class, I did that today when we were doing rhetorical analysis of Watchmen. I made them free write an analysis for about 20 minutes (we have computers in the classroom), then had them get back for discussion. I limited myself to setting the discussion up, taking notes, and deciding when to stop. They hit just about all the bigs points I would mention and others I wouldn't have. I would have liked more students involved in the discussion, but it got close to half out of 18. I also twittered my thoughts about their conversation. Overall, I was very happy with how it went.


Especially if there is an intellectual framework established, it's impressive that students challenge themselves and often push further than we might as their teachers. And, of course, they remember it far better when the process is their own discovery than taking notes on OUR discoveries! Your class sounds great too.