Phillip Parker: Can Big Data Authors End Poverty? at TEDxSeattle (Transcript)

We have a computer program that wrote about four million poems – sonnets, and limericks, and haiku – and we have another program that accesses an editor that then judges the quality of those poems to figure out which ones to post online. We got at 1.4 million of those. This is the acrostic for GOD, “Gentleman of Divinity” that passed through the algorithm; and the second one is LOVE, “Lean Of Vile Emotions.”

How did we do this? Leonhard Euler, the famous mathematician, came up with this notion of graph-theory. Basically, a semantic web of words that are related to each other in some kind of quantitative way. Zero, of course, doesn’t have a powerful number there because it’s used as a score for the “love” in tennis. So is not so related to the other words of love. I was approached, a few years back, based on my language literacy programs by the Gates Foundation to look at publishing in under-served areas in the field of agriculture. The world’s poorest are in the field of agriculture, and they are in remote villages.

One of our first things we did was actually install from all of the massive data out there in local languages weather-reports, crop pest and disease reports that are used in radio stations. This is FarmerVoiceRadio that was broadcasting the local weather for the first time in villages. They’ve never heard the weather report before. We got some very good feedback in terms of explanations of what do you mean by kilometers, what do you mean by degree Celsius, etc. So a lot of programming had to go in to supplement that.

We also worked with the Grameen Foundation in Uganda to create dashboards individualized for the various agricultural regions synthesizing information that could not have been done very easily if it was done manually; working with direct connections to Africa, sending in textbooks that are now in local languages. The Anthill Foundation – this is a village in Uganda where the village had not yet had textbooks before. This was the day that the first one arrived, and you can see the children’s heads pressed against each other. Definitely a demand for this kind of content. This is the most encouraging thing I found of this whole exercise, “I believe the books will motivate even those who are currently not attending school to go,” which is a very encouraging insight. This is one of our funnest projects.

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This is a high-end 3D animation video game. Most languages do not have video games. This one is actually an output of an algorithm engine; it can be played for any geography in the world given the world soil conditions, climate conditions, etc.; it imitates the agronomy of any location, and we’ve got algorithms that can look at Google maps and actually get the actual terrain of the village where the game might be played. It’s for agricultural extension workers to learn how to form in areas that they might have not visited before.

In terms of hardware, this is where we started. The future will be in your pocket. Your phones should be writing books for you pretty soon. They’ll be writing PhD dissertations – talk about formulaic for anyone’s ever done it – “The effects of X on Y; a Z perspective,” speculation or discovery engines, minority reports telling us before disease breaks out in a given region what should be the plan of action or the call to action.

Word 2.0 – you’ve ever been to a Word document, and it’s blank, and you’re going, “Gosh, I’d like to write a biography about my grandfather.” You push a few buttons, do a few things, and boom! you’ve got a first draft. So maybe Word can write for us. Instead of googling, maybe we can have a content engine so when you type in “bibliography, subject X,” it actually gives you one, and it’s yours to reuse as much as you want with all rights clearance. My favorite one is a physics textbook.

When you’re a child, often, you don’t like what you’re reading. Do you agree? Physics books. But you want to be a football player. Why not have a football player physics book? Why not have a ballet physics book? There are thousands of subjects people are interested in. Why not have the context of what I’m most interested in because now we can create these types of titles; if we can do the world’s smallest languages, we can certainly do the world’s smallest hobbies. Big data is big, but I think we all should demand more. Thank you very much.

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