The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

by on August 9, 2012 at 7:06 am in Books, Science | Permalink

Nearly here:

SITTING down with the Inquire system is, at first, a lot like trying to cosy up to an intimidatingly dense biology textbook. Sure, its presentation on the iPad is slick, but that can’t hide the fact that you are in for a tough old read.

That is until you highlight the first bit of particularly impenetrable text. Suddenly a list of questions pops up in the right-hand margin. Touch one and you are whisked away to a Wikipedia-like page full of information specific to the concept you are stuck on. Terms like “chloroplast” and “plasma membrane” are succinctly defined, and the page explains how each concept fits into the wider field of biology.

Want to know more? Type in your own question and artificially intelligent software will construct a new page to answer your query.

The aim of Inquire is to provide students with the world’s first intelligent textbook, says its creator David Gunning of Seattle-based Vulcan. At first glance, the system just looks like an electronic version of Campbell Biology, the tome that forms the bedrock of biology classes for first-year university and advanced high school students in the US. But behind the scenes is a machine-readable concept map of the 5000 or so ideas covered in the book, along with information on how they are all related.

Nick August 9, 2012 at 8:37 am

Neal Stephenson reference?

Artimus August 9, 2012 at 8:53 am

“Diamond Age”, I was thinking the same thing. Actually one of my favorite books.

ivvenalis August 9, 2012 at 9:05 am

The entire plot of that book was basically a shaggy dog story about the immutability of human nature. In the case of the Primer, that there was no substitute for being raised by loving parents.

DPG August 9, 2012 at 11:16 am

The end was suprisingly conservative. But, he might have a point.

“Mother-only households are shown to be associated with particular patterns of family decision making and adolescent deviance, even when family income and parental education are controlled.”

Anonymous coward August 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

That’s sexist or racist, I don’t know, possibly both.

Vernunft August 11, 2012 at 7:13 pm

The important question is: is it correct?

At least, it used to be. Then we started to declare war on science.

TGGP August 9, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Bryan Caplan has already pointed out that the cause seems to be nature rather than nurture: widows have VERY different outcomes from unwed mothers, no matter how early in the child’s development the father died.

Anonymous coward August 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm

That’s interesting. Do you have a link?

Enrique August 9, 2012 at 9:39 am

What about pricing? most textbooks are a big scam; will this one be any different?

charlie August 9, 2012 at 9:49 am

Thank god, we’ve finally found a way to monetize Wikipedia.

CJ August 9, 2012 at 9:53 am

Yeah, but when they change two questions in chapter five, will you have to pay for the update?

JWatts August 9, 2012 at 9:59 am

Kudos on the Diamond Age reference.

“entire plot of that book was basically a shaggy dog story about the immutability of human nature.”

Yes, the immutability of human nature was integral to the plot, but I’m not sure why that qualifies it as “a shaggy dog story”.

Anonymous coward August 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

It’s because progressives like ivvenalis can’t abide the fact of the immutability of human nature. It sticks in their craw.

ivvenalis August 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Because the search for a technological solution for certain human problems (parenting, cyclic social/political reaction, arguably the need for certain transcendental values in the case of the Chinese) is the driving force in the story, but at the end it turns out that there is no such solution. e.g. the Victorian lord with the Korean name keeps trying to figure out how he can prevent the next generation from repeating history by rebelling against their straitlaced parents, but eventually just decides there’s basically nothing he can do about it. It also turns out that the Primer only works well if there’s an actual parent behind the picture.

Anonymous coward August 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm

the Victorian lord with the Korean name keeps trying to figure out how he can prevent the next generation from repeating history by rebelling against their straitlaced parents

That’s not at all what Finkle-McGraw was trying to do, in fact he was was trying to do almost exactly the reverse of what you’re saying! You simply misunderstood the story.

Careless August 15, 2012 at 12:31 pm

And misunderstood it badly. The primer winds up creating an army of super-girls, raised without parents.

Aside from Chinese people being Chinese, it’s the most blank-slatist book I can think of.

Anonymous coward August 9, 2012 at 10:01 am

> Nearly here:
Pfui. Also, science textbooks are dense, complex and intimidating for a reason, and learning cannot be made much easier as long as it is the human that learns, and not the artificial intelligence system. If one can’t remember definitions, then maybe science is not a wise career choice. With this kind of “textbook”, essentially a domain-specific Google on steroids, one does not learn things as traditionally understood, but only where and how to find things and approximately what do they look like. A master of only this kind of “knowledge” can produce sciencey gibberish without much effort, but I doubt whether innovative and creative thinking can be built on such flimsy foundations.

Alex Godofsky August 9, 2012 at 10:10 am

As a software developer one of my most valuable skills is knowing what to google for. It’s just like the old story about the mechanic who tightens one nut and charges $100 for knowing which nut.

Andrew' August 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

Again, we need more terrible scientists and fewer great java technicians.

Anonymous coward August 9, 2012 at 11:22 am

I know what you are talking about, I’m a software developer myself. The difference between a good developer and a bad developer isn’t in the google. We have a solid grounding in fundamental concepts of computation, hardware, software, discrete mathematics etc. and upon this foundation we can google and apply particular knowledge efficiently. But today there is a growing breed of “developers” who are just “integrating code” they find on the internet, but have a very tenuous grasp on the fundamentals. Countless questions on SO reveal a lack of understanding what is the difference between compile-time and run-time, what does the compiler do, what is the difference between variables and values etc.

Andrew' August 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Because I’ve seen the same issue in a completely non-computer field I think what you refer to is a universal problem of apprenticeship, incentives, and remuneration. This is especially bad in graduate school. Advisor gives new student a problem. New student asks senior student for the solution so they can take solution back to advisor. Advisor then complains to senior student who isn’t solving their monstrously complex problems fast enough when new students seem to be progressing nicely. This is why grad school is often training to be a bigger dick.

Script Kiddy August 9, 2012 at 9:56 pm

so what’s the answer? :).

Anonymous coward August 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm


Andrew' August 9, 2012 at 10:01 am

The big returns are going to be from (1) cost cutting and (2) figuring out what kids are really really good at and (3) really interested in. We push kids into things they hate and are bad at because that is cheaper than individualization and this offers change to that.

John Percival Hackworth August 9, 2012 at 10:28 am

Using modern computer technology (graphics, global IP networks, speakers, microphones, cameras, learning databases, touch interfaces, etc.) to recreate a Gutenbergian textbook seems a bit like using modern machining tools to build a slightly better blacksmith hammer, doesn’t it?

I expect the future of education looks more like this:

And this:

jb August 9, 2012 at 11:23 am

“Shaggy Dog Story” From Wikipedia:

In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline.

IMO, that is definitely not how The Diamond Age ends. If it can be said to end at all.

dan1111 August 9, 2012 at 11:38 am

Sounds interesting. However, in my experience poor writing is the biggest problem with science and engineering textbooks. This concept will still require well-written content to work, and there will still be a shortage if that. Why? Because all the scientists and engineers are busy developing concepts like this.

Crowd sourcing, not clickable words, is the key feature of wikipedia that could improve textbook quality. Make a wiki for a class, add a login and reputation system to gauge quality, and make student reputation part of grading, and, voila! You have a textbook and a god student evaluation system.

John Percival Hackworth August 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Actually, Coursera (another edu-tech startup) has an even better solution: testing and iteration. Provide students with an info nugget; then immediately quiz them for understanding; then refine the info nugget until understanding improves; rinse, repeat.

dearieme August 9, 2012 at 5:27 pm

But will it solve the real problem in Biology – that although I know I ought to find it interesting, in reality I find most of it deadly dull.

eddie August 10, 2012 at 12:01 am

My three-year-old daughters have e-readers which come with a variety of books, games, and exercises, all of them accompanied by appropriate A/V (pictures, animation, sounds, music, narration, spoken prompts, visual prompts, etc etc). The material and activities cover a range of skill levels from age three to age seven. The software keeps track of each child’s progress and adjusts the activities to match their abilities.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is already here, and it’s manufactured by companies such as VTech and Leapfrog.

Anonymous coward August 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Pfui. Does a truckload of picture frames equal an exhibition of Old Masters?

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