Thursday, September 09, 2004


The August TechFest in Telluride Colorado was a lot of fun. They set up a 2million volt Tesla coil in the middle of mainstreet at night and made lots of lightning. I was one of the featured speakers and brought Sylvie with me. She was a huge hit. We did a second presentation to the children of the town...very bright children I might add. Afterwards I had an flock of kids following me everywhere I went. Then I did a book signing at the local bookstore. It was a sell out...with many of the kids dragging their parents in and insisting on getting an autographed copy of Virtual Humans. I've been on Adkins and was very happy to go off it for a few days. I must say Telluride is an awesomely beautiful place with very sophicated resturants. If you ever go there, stay at the New Sheridan Hotel. The rooms are reminiscent of the old days and very comfortable. It also has the best included breakfast in the county.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

V-teachers will make learning more efficient.


My old friend and mentor Fred S. Keller was a very wise man who understood learning at a deeper level than most of us ever will. Fred had achieved a vast state of maturity when I was privileged to receive weekly doses of his wisdom at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. Fred came up with something he called the: Personalized System of Instruction or PSI. (Affectionately known as the Keller method) It has a core philosophy that includes the following four features:

"(1) Go-at-your-own-pace, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
"(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
"(3) The adaptive use of teaching resources, including multimedia presentations and interactive demonstrations, as well as text sources of critical information. Adaptation based on analysis of student’s learning
"(4) The use of repeated unobtrusive testing, immediate scoring, adaptive tutoring, and the inclusion of scripting to enhance the personal-social aspect of the educational process." (these features paraphrase -- Keller, 1968)
Fred was a behaviorist. Many of us have a hard time with behaviorists because they tend to see humans as black boxes which can be controlled much like Pavlov’s dogs. Disgusting I know. We’d like to think of ourselves as so much more sophisticated than that. Thus we often ignore what the Behaviorists have to offer. Children do learn most effectively in a carefully contrived learning environment replete with precise conditioned reinforces and variable schedules of reinforcement. This is not a controversial statement. It’s been proven time and time again in hundreds of education and psychology studies that I’m not going to cite here. If you don’t believe, go to Google and have at it.

The Keller approach uses a clearly devised education environment that reinforces educational progress at the micro-level. As the student masters concepts principles and facts, he is rewarded immediately, his progress is recorded and he is encouraged onward to new material. If you think about it, this is the way we learn best, naturally.

In perhaps fifteen years, our children will need to learn complex things we can only imagine today. I suspect, the bulk of education will not be directly associated with making a living. One of the most important skills they will be taught, without doubt, is how stay on top of their changing world. Today we adapt naturally to change…not so in the near future. It will take effort. Life will be like software, constantly in revision, with the complexity factor constantly increasing daily. If all goes well and we avoid unnecessary war, our children will be learning the fine points of knowledge acquisition, artistic expression and leisure exploitation. Folks with good hands will have unprecedented, on-demand access training in such things as stonescaping, artistic carpentry, digital painting, culinary art and sculpting -- both physical, and 3D virtual style. I hope our love of books remains, but it will probably decline in time with books becoming bits of treasured antiquity.

Virtual Teachers are ideal for the Keller method of teaching. They can apply learning reinforcement with pinpoint precision, probe for the students learning style and achievent level in micro-steps. But they can also be set up for any approach that we find may be better. The sad truth is that V-teachers are potentially better and more personal than real teachers, giving each student patient instruction adapted to his or her best learning style.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Most of us are not aware that Virtual Humans are on the rise. They're showing up in web pages as intelligent hosts, have been set up in computer stores to answer questions about specific systems, and are everywhere providing information on scheduling, products etc. If you call Amtrak you get Sylvia, a voice-only virtual human who is intelligent enought to get you the information you need on train schedules etc. Far more intelligent Virtual Humans exist. They have engaging personalities, ability to hold general conversations and even the ability to carry out requests and commands. Studies have shown that they can already handle about 68% of the average company's customer support situations. They are already begining to replace human jobs.

I don't think this is a sad situation. As we move into a knowledge based society, the nature of human jobs is evolving rapidly. Communications technology is making ever more knowledge freely available to everyone and news travels fast. Those of us who wish to make use of all this will be on the plus side of the knowledge divide that is slowly widening. The people who do not take advantage will rapidly fall by the wayside of contemporary life. Today, many of them simply can not use the technology because of their backgrounds or personalities or level of intelligence.

Unfortunately these are the people who will see their jobs being rapidly sucked up by V-people. Where is the bright spot? It turns out virtual human itnerfacing can open up the knowledge frontier to the technologically disadvantaged. It is like a hand reaching across the divide; a bridge across ignorance and fear. Because the v-people understand technology on one hand and humans on the other they can become a transparent conduit allowing knowledge to flow smoothly to the far side of the divide. The result should be a narrowing of the divide and eventual elimination of it as ever more people avail them selves of information.

If you're interested in this topic, please come visit us at and you can find my book "Virtual Humans" at your local book store or on-line at, Barnes & Nolbel etc.

Peter Plantec