(2008-04-30) Memory Algorithm

Piotr Wozniak's Super Memo program helps you practice/retain information you want to remember/learn at the optimal interval. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge - introspection, intuition, and conscious thought - but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines... Given the chance to observe our behaviors (Life Streaming), computers can run Simulation-s, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we've read, help us track whom we've met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak's scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational Self Control... "The people who criticize memorization - how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?" asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA's psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. "You can't escape memorization," he says. "There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That's a stage we all go through. It's all the more important to go through it rapidly." The human brain is a marvel of Associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory. Personal Development

Wozniak has also invented a way to apply his Learning system to his intake of unstructured information from books and articles, winnowing written material down to the type of discrete chunks (CardDeck) that can be memorized, and then scheduling them for efficient learning. He selects a short section of what he's reading and copies it into the Super Memo application, which predicts when he'll want to read it again so it sticks in his mind. He cuts and pastes completely unread material into the system, assigning it a priority. Super Memo shuffles all his potential knowledge into a queue and presents it to him on a study screen when the time is right. (Personal Web Archive)

The failure of Super Memo to transform learning uncannily repeats the earlier failures of cognitive psychology to influence teachers and students. Our capacity to learn is amazingly large. But optimal learning demands a kind of rational control over ourselves that does not come easily. Even the basic demand for regularity can be daunting. If you skip a few days, the spacing effect, with its steady march of sealing knowledge in memory, begins to lose its force. Progress limps. When it comes to increasing intelligence, our brain is up to the task and our technology is up to the task. The problem lies in our temperament. (Slack, Self Control)

Wozniak's days are blocked into distinct periods: a Creative period, a reading and studying period, an exercise period, an eating period, a resting period, and then a second creative period. He doesn't get up at a regular hour and is passionate against alarm clocks. If excitement over his research leads him to work into the night, he simply shifts to sleeping in the day. When he sits down for a session of incremental reading, he attends to whatever automatically appears on his computer screen, stopping the instant his mind begins to drift or his comprehension falls too low and then moving on to the next item in the queue. Super Memo graphs a distribution of priorities that he can adjust as he goes.

I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a Genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetition (SRS), preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired. This should lead to radically improved intelligence and creativity. The only cost: turning your back on every convention of social life. It is a severe prescription. And yet now, as I grin broadly and wave to the gawkers, it occurs to me that the cold rationality of his approach may be only a surface feature and that, when linked to genuine rewards, even the chilliest of systems can have a certain visceral appeal.

Jan'2013 update: Derek Sivers is using the free (and Python-based) Anki software to do the same thing, currently to beef up his JavaScript understanding. I think I'll wait for Anki's new version to reach its Android version, then experiment with improving my Python skills: actually I don't think I'd be focused on memorizing details so much as making myself more familiar with the libraries that are available.

  • related: earlier this year I ran across this Alex Krupp post using a FreeMind Mind Map to manage his notes about Python. Hmm, render from Anki to FreeMind?
  • Jan09: Jack Kinsella has an Anki-based process to learn a Programming Language deeply. It works because you can recall code in an instant: "Knowing thousands of commands saves time otherwise spent looking up reference materials. You instantly recall previous solutions when faced with a problem, and dozen of possibilities spring to mind when architecting a system."
    • Sept'2015: commenter points out Jack has newer post on refinements to his process.

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