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How can we develop transformative tools for thought?

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses the development of transformative "tools for thought" - systems that can augment human intelligence and cognition. It focuses on the authors' prototype "mnemonic medium" system, which aims to help users easily consolidate and remember what they learn. The article also explores broader ideas for developing other types of transformative tools for thought, such as "mnemonic videos" that blend emotional and intellectual experiences. Finally, it examines why the technology industry has made relatively little effort in this area compared to the pioneering work of the past.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] The Mnemonic Medium

1. What is the mnemonic medium and how does it work?

  • The mnemonic medium is an experimental prototype system developed by the authors to help users easily consolidate and remember what they learn.
  • It is embedded within an essay-like format, with 112 questions about the content interspersed throughout the text.
  • Users create an account and are quizzed on the questions as they read, with the time interval between reviews increasing exponentially as they successfully recall the answers.
  • This exponential scheduling makes it efficient for users to achieve long-term retention of the material with just a few minutes of review.

2. What preliminary results have the authors seen with the mnemonic medium?

  • Early user feedback has been cautiously optimistic, with some users reporting that the medium helped them follow and understand technical concepts they previously struggled with.
  • Analytics show a steady flow of users consistently working through the review sessions as intended, with some demonstrating an extraordinary level of commitment.
  • An informal experiment showed that users who reviewed the cards regularly saw their performance either stay the same or improve, while 40% of those with delayed reviews saw their performance decline.

3. What are some of the key principles and challenges involved in writing good cards for the mnemonic medium?

  • Key principles include: making questions atomic and self-contained, ensuring early questions are trivial to answer, and avoiding "orphan" cards unconnected to the broader context.
  • Challenges include balancing enthusiasm for the medium with a need for skeptical evaluation, and recognizing that writing good cards is an open-ended skill requiring deep thinking about knowledge representation and learning.

4. How does the mnemonic medium differ from and potentially improve upon existing spaced repetition memory systems?

  • Existing systems are often limited to simple declarative knowledge like vocabulary words or lists of facts.
  • The mnemonic medium aims to support the learning of more abstract, conceptual knowledge through strategies for constructing effective cards and embedding the system within a narrative context.
  • The authors believe the mnemonic medium can be seen as a "memory laboratory" for developing new, more powerful principles of memory systems.

[02] Broader Tools for Thought

1. What are some other prototype tools for thought the authors describe?

  • "Mnemonic videos" that blend emotional and intellectual experiences, aiming to create a unified and carefully crafted experience that supports both memory and understanding.
  • The authors sketch out how such videos could integrate questions and spaced repetition seamlessly into a high-affect video narrative.

2. Why do the authors argue that emotion should be taken seriously when developing tools for thought?

  • Historically, much work on tools for thought has focused narrowly on skills acquired or "what the user learns", ignoring the importance of emotional connection and experience.
  • Media forms like movies, music, and games demonstrate the power of designing for the user's emotional journey, which the authors believe is a "high-order bit" for the effectiveness of tools for thought.

3. Why has there been relatively little effort in the technology industry to develop transformative tools for thought, compared to the pioneering work of the past?

  • The authors argue that tools for thought often suffer from a "public goods" problem - they are expensive to develop but easy for others to copy, reducing the incentive for companies to invest.
  • The current patent system is not well-suited to protecting innovative tools for thought, as it tends to favor broad, vague claims rather than specific, valuable ideas.
  • Successful business models in the video game industry, which has developed many new interface ideas, may provide a model for overcoming the public goods challenge.

4. What are the authors' views on the potential for developing new transformative tools for thought in the future?

  • The authors believe we are still in the early days, and that many more powerful tools for thought remain to be discovered, if the right foundational ideas and praxis can be developed.
  • They argue that the rapid progress made by small, motivated groups in the past suggests that scaling up such efforts could yield significant breakthroughs, if the cultural and institutional challenges can be overcome.
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