Are we on the verge of a learning system breakthrough?

I've been experimenting with a popular video-based training platform as I continue my journey as a lifelong learner. The platform is excellent and offers a variety of resources; in fact, there are so many options to choose from it's sometimes hard deciding where to go next.

And that's the problem. The platform doesn't really know me. It's designed as a one-to-many approach where the content is extremely broad and it's up to the user to figure out where to invest their time.

There's nothing wrong with that approach but it doesn't take advantage of today's technology capabilities.

If we could combine three distinct technologies I think we could take a huge leap forward in learning systems. I'm talking about (1) voice UI's (think Alexa), (2) modern text-to-speech services and, (3) artificial intelligence (AI) where the platform learns about me and therefore delivers a custom, one-to-one, solution.

Voice UI's are all around us but they're still in the new, experimental stages. Early TV is sometimes referred to as "radio in front of a camera" and before too long we'll describe today's voice UI's in a similar fashion.

One way voice UI's will move forward is by having access to enormous libraries of richly tagged content. I say "richly tagged" because the content will need to be granularized so that it can be searched and reconstituted in an infinite number of ways depending on each user's needs. Also, we shouldn't rely exclusively on Amazon and their capabilities, hence the need for one of the more modern text-to-speech solutions which are often indistinguishable from an actual person.

The third leg of the stool is the AI to power the conversation, learn about me personally, understand how to answer and where to take me next.

It all adds up to a user experience that feels like I'm receiving one-on-one training from an expert on the topic. Over time the system learns about me and my strengths and weaknesses, just like any good teacher. It also builds successful learning paths based on different user skill and learning preferences thereby making the system even more useful for future users.

I'm curious if something like this already exists, even if it's on a small scale or in the early stages. The pieces of the puzzle are already available so it's just a question of pulling them together, managing the IP rights/income streams and offering it at a compelling price.


Reinventing pen on paper

I'm a borderline obsessive note-taker and I've wrestled for years with bringing notes on paper into the digital world. The hack I've used for the past few years is to simply take a picture of my written note pages and then move them into Evernote. That works, for the most part, but I also end up with a stack of notebooks to toss at the end of the year...if only I could bring myself to actually toss them. OK, I'm a borderline hoarder too.

I've also never gotten comfortable using a stylus on a tablet. For whatever reason I insist on writing on paper with a pen.

A few months ago I was ready to take another shot at stylus-on-tablet and splurge on the reMarkable 2. In fact, I was days away from clicking "buy" when a colleague sent me an email from one of his friends who had an awful customer service experience with the device. That saved me $400 but left me with my old solution...until I discovered the Rocketbook.

Rocketbook is an erasable notebook with pages designed to upload directly to Evernote and pretty much every other digital note platform. They have a number of notebook formats and I opted for the Fusion. It's super thin and simply requires the use of erasable pens. There are probably other pen options out there but I went with the friXion clicker. In fact, I bought a bunch of them in different colors at Walmart.

I've been using my Fusion for several weeks now and I love it. The first page shows all my tasks for the week and notes associated with them. At the end of the week I use the Rocketbook app to take a picture and have them automatically loaded into Evernote. I then wipe the page clean with a damp cloth and I'm ready for the week ahead. The notebook is filled with other pages for drawings, notes and pretty much any other use you can think of.

Adding up the notebook and the pens I'm all in for about $45, or about 10% of the reMarkable investment.

Not only is the Rocketbook Fusion a great solution for my needs, it's also a regular reminder that pretty much anything can be reinvented and disrupted, even pen on paper.


The failed promise of turning webpages into a podcast

How many times have you found an interesting article on the web but you have no time to read it? This happens to me every day and despite the variety of save-for-later reading tools out there they all tend to fade into the background and I forget to go back and read what I've saved for later.

When I saw this article on Springwise I immediately took a closer look at the solution it described. The article talks about how a "web browser extension transforms saved articles into podcasts." It turns out this extension is like many others; it simply does a text-to-speech conversion and creates an MP3 file. IOW, there's no connection to a podcast stream. So although the conversion produces impressive human-sounding results (click here to listen to my previous article), it falls short of the promise of transforming anything into a podcast stream.

This seems like a potentially enormous opportunity and gap for someone to fill. Imagine a one-click solution that truly gathers all your saved articles into a stream for your favorite podcast platform. What if that system eventually became so popular that audio ads could be injected dynamically, creating an income source? OK, yes, there would be a number of IP rights issues to potentially overcome but I could also see a model where that revenue stream is shared with the IP owner, alleviating that legal issue. Another interesting feature would be where I could follow others and listen to the articles they curated in their feed; as we've seen with other platforms, those with the biggest following also earn some sort of affiliate income. There are loads of possibilities here and it's all about transforming the written word into audio for broader consumption.

If something like this already exists please let me know. I'd use it every single day and I'm sure there are millions of others out there who would do the same. It's also one of those rare problems where I'd gladly pay a reasonable price to solve.


The future of collaborative digital content consumption

Amazon's recent Watch Party announcement sheds light on what the future holds for digital content consumption. It's primitive, yes, but a step in the right direction.

To summarize, Watch Party lets two people watch a movie together even though they're not in the same location. The first version limits interactions to texts and emojis but you can bet a future version will support video on both ends so you can make faces and feel closer together.

With Alexa (and Prime) Amazon has built an incredible platform for on-demand content which can be simultaneously enjoyed by multiple people regardless of location. Podcasts are a great example. There have been a number of times when I wanted to listen to one with my wife when I was probably driving home but she wasn't in the car with me. Today I'm forced to stop and wait till we're together.

In the future imagine using nothing but voice commands to tell the podcast to pause, see if my wife wants to join me, then play it for both of us to enjoy remotely. Now a channel is open for us to listen, pause, comment to each other, etc., as if we're both listening in my car.

Take it a step further and think about longer-form learning. What if two or three people want to take a course together, listening and/or watching, over an Alexa-powered Zoom-like communication platform where, again, pausing, commenting, etc., is all enabled via audio commands. Thanks to a powerful search on the back side of this you're always able to pause and ask for a deeper dive on any topic that comes up.

I realize a great deal of the learning process takes place in solitude. That means textbooks don't necessarily go away but voice UI and synchronized platforms like Watch Party will undoubtedly lead to new options for learning as well as entertainment.


React, respond, rebuild

This pandemic is having an immediate effect on almost every job and it's likely to have a longer-lasting impact in the years ahead. There's plenty of speculation around this topic but this article from Lynda Gratton in MIT Sloan Management Review is one of the most insightful ones I've read.

The author refers to a survey response she got from one CEO who said their mantra is "React, respond, rebuild." It reminds me of the agile approach to software development and one of the keys to both is flexibility.

She outlines three types of job categories and provides valuable prescriptive advice for each. The most challenging one is the last one, which she describes as being "non-routine and highly collaborative, with an innovation aspect" and her example is a product developer. A huge hole for this role is the serendipity that's disappeared thanks to all the work which now takes place remotely.

Those chance encounters almost never happen these days but that sounds like a business opportunity for a bright, creative technologist who can come up with a way to fill the void...