Breandan's Blog

Democratizing Learning Technology

Growing up in rural New Hampshire, the world is a small place. Our nearest neighbors lived miles away, and you could drive for hours before seeing anything like a city. My grandparents moved out of New York in the 1960s, and raised me in a single-family home thirty years later. They would stoke the fire at night and tell me stories of places where buildings rose a hundred stories tall and trains ran underground. We would read newspapers by candlelight, and day by day, the world grew a bit larger.

It is a little unreal to think of how much the world has changed these last few years. Today, we have self-driving cars and information superhighways, smartphones and social networks, but in many ways we are further from our neighbors than ever before. As a computer science major, I understand the vital importance of technology in today’s connected society. As a student and software engineer traveling to developing countries like China, I have watched that same technology leave many behind. I know we can do better.

Growing up with a mentally disabled person helps you appreciate the little things. Like reading. We may take it for granted, but reading is a gift that opens doors into another world, shut to those who cannot read. Yet by some estimates, over a quarter of the world’s adult population is unable to read a book. This needs to change, and quickly. We have the technology to completely eradicate adult illiteracy for children born after 2010, even without access to schools or internet. And now more than ever, we need literate citizens of the world.

In the software industry, far too much talent is squandered on frivolous things like selling ads and sharing selfies. And far too much effort is spent exploiting those who do not understand technology, rather than educating the ones who need it most. In the industrial revolution, child labor grew to an all-time high, despite promises of giving young people more time to pursue an education. Likewise, today’s technology can be a tool to empower and enlighten, but is often used to persuade and preoccupy those who are most susceptible to its influence.

After college, I was lucky to find fulfilling work that allowed me to repay my student loans and provide for the family who raised me. But I am often reminded of those more gifted than I, who are unable to do so for circumstances beyond their control. Who must take unfulfilling jobs to feed their families. Who lack the necessary means to attend school. Who have no one to call a family. I know that if those people could have the same opportunities I have enjoyed – if they could meet the same people I have met, the world would be a much better place.

Our history is full of men and women who were at the right place and the right time. Who were given the right combination of resources and opportunity to effect lasting change. But far more, are those who were never given the opportunity to put their talents to use – held back because they could not read or marginalized by a society that could not spare the time to teach these children. It is said the true measure of a civilization is how it treats the least of its citizens. I believe today, that truth is more important than ever before.

Today, we are uniquely equipped with the technology to give millions of children a world-class education – technology that can hold conversations, teach foreign languages and do simultaneous translation, with devices that fit on a child’s wrist. Today, we are standing at a turning point in human history. In recent comments, Stephen Hawking, a physicist and distinguished beneficiary of assistive technology, predicts two possible futures. One, where society is elevated by technology - where knowledge and opportunity is abundant and freely given. But there is a second future, where only the privileged few - those endowed with the talents and resources to outrun the accelerating pace of technology can enjoy the prosperity and wellbeing it confers. We cannot allow this future to exist.

We have the technology to radically transform education in developing countries, where millions of children are learning English and foreign languages. We have the ability to teach languages in a completely different way, with machine learning and speech recognition. And we have the responsibility to use these tools to help cultivate the minds of young people around the world, regardless of their intellectual abilities. Providing a quality education to the underprivileged and disabled is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and one that I am committed to solving.

Further Reading