Barefoot In the head

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Location: Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, United Kingdom

I am around if you are around.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Children, the internet, and a gecko called TikTiki


Investec is a large investment company in South Africa and they wanted me to do an education experiment with them. It was the height of the COVID pandemic, and I was in lockdown in Kolkata (Calcutta) in India. It turned out to be a challenge for virtual education over the internet.

We all know that the UN has something called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, or SDGs as they are called. However, while we know SDGs exist, few know what they are. Investec wanted change that. Their plan was to have one expert and one learner for each SDG. The expert would tutor the learner in the SDG and the sessions would be recorded on video. This would then form a bank of videos that can be used by people to learn about SDGs. It looked all very planned and neat. Except for SDG4.

The 4th SDG is about education. It says, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Children worldwide would be affected by this SDG. Investec decided that children should learn about SDG4. But how would this happen in the middle of the pandemic?

Investec chose a triplet from London. They were 11 years old and, obviously, born at the same time from the same mother. And who would be the tutor? Guess what, they chose me! There would be three sessions of about 45 minutes each, over the internet, from Calcutta to London.

Eleven year olds find it difficult to sit still for more than a few seconds, particularly if there is a talking head of some old geezer on a small screen in front of them. What on earth was I to do? How would the girls understand words like inclusive, equitable, and lifelong learning? Why would they care?

I decided that even I, the tutor, did not understand all the words of SDG4 all that well. So, I decided I would tell them that I did not quite understand and ask if they could explain what all this was about, to me. I asked Investec if the girls would be allowed to use the internet during the sessions and they nervously agreed.

The sessions took place on the 18th, 24th and 27th of May, 2021.

During the first session, after much yawning and shuffling, the girls woke up when I asked what they would do about food on a deserted island. After much deliberation, they decided to cook fish in coconut milk inside a coconut. I thought this was brilliant and if anyone served this in a London restaurant, it would cost no less than 10 pounds. They looked happy at the thought so I asked what they would do about schooling on the deserted island. While they thought about it, the session ended.

In the second session, I told them about a beautiful gecko that was neither dead nor alive on my sideboard. It was a real story, so I must have sounded a bit freaked out and the girls leapt onto their tablet and found out everything about geckos. How did they learn all this? I asked. The girls were only interested in geckos by this time and I requested that we return to the deserted island. They reluctantly did and I asked them about education where there were no schools and teachers. “Oh, OK, we just need a tablet”, they said and lost all interest in the matter. The session ended.

In the final session, the girls wanted to know about Calcutta. I showed them pictures of the Howrah Bridge over the Hoogly, a boat, a hand-pulled rickshaw and a very fancy tourist bus. “There are many ways to get from one place to another”, I said. There are many ways to learn, I said and we discussed how birds can talk but don’t really know what they are saying. That’s not learning, is it? The girls grinned. They were really restless, not because they were bored, but because they had figured out SDG4.

“Everyone must go to school. If there is no school, they can make their own school. On a deserted island we must learn how to learn (their words!)”.

You can see the three sessions, if you have the patience, here:

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Going forward to normal

In the April of this year, I had suggested  that verbal examinations can replace traditional, paper-and-pencil, physical examinations in schools and universities, as is the norm for the award of a Ph.D. degree. That interview is here: ) 

In August, the UK government declared the results of the GCSE and A-Level “examinations”. The scores were computed by groups of teachers and based on many past tests and interviews with students. The results showed large improvement in performance across the UK. Students celebrated and Universities drooled over the possibility of more and better admissions. There was an overall reduction in stress across learners, parents, teachers, schools and employers. So, what went right – and was it right? The government’s stern warning: This will not be the norm – soon we will go back to normal. The normal, in this case, consisting of stressed-out students, spewing out memorized material, not allowed to talk, listen, look at or type to anyone or anything. Like a deadly game of The Chase, in real life.  

What these recent results tell us about education are quite simple, and often obvious. I have a list and here are a few of the key ideas:  

Do not teach learners what they can learn by themselves – rather obvious is it not? It is just that the list of things learners can learn by themselves, using the internet, is getting to be uncomfortably large. 

Allow the use of the Internet during examinations– everybody googles all the time, but for some reason, we want to prevent others, particularly young learners, from doing so.  

You need to know when you need to know– you don’t, anymore, need to know things just in case you ever need them. It is no longer normal. Maybe it was normal in Robinson Crusoe’s time. 

On the internet, schools, teachers and learners can be anywhere – you don’t have to “belong” to a school.  

Conversation and interaction with teachers can provide accurate assessment of learning– as we saw from the recent results. 

During the pandemic lockdowns, schools closed everywhere. Teaching and learning moved into the virtual world of the internet. It was no longer fashionable to say, “I am not good with tech”. Instead, teachers who had resisted using the internet for years, and indeed the rest of us, all became experts at digital video conferencing, bandwidth, cameras, lighting, microphones and acoustics. But we all made a mistake. We thought we would create virtual classrooms using the internet. It did not work well, and we said, “It’s not like the real thing, we need to go back to normal”. We did not realise we were trying to make an automobile behave like a horse and cart. We do not need classrooms over the internet, we need different kinds of learning environments. Some self-organised by learners, some guided by teachers. 

As the Corona Virus pandemic reaches a plateau in most countries, it is increasingly evident that the virus and the related disease is not ‘going away’. It will remain for a long time, although relatively benign. Perhaps the virus will become just a nuisance like the common cold, or a slayer of old people like influenza or even a vicious but rare killer like rabies. As restrictions are lifted, it is common to hear of “going back to normal” or “as life returns to normal”. Expressions of hope and positivity – that are unfortunately naïve.   


We cannot move backwards in time; we can never go “back” to anything. Even if we could - to what “normal” shall we return? Is 2018 the “normal” we want to go back to, or is it 1918, or perhaps even 1818? The past is always glorious to the human mind, possibly because our brains keep good memories and bury the bad ones. “Normal” is the way we used to do things in the past – not the recent past because the bad memories are still not submerged enough, and not too far in the past because before an (unspecified) period of time, we were “primitive”. There is a gloriously rosy spot somewhere in between, when everything was Nice, and Proper, and Normal. The trouble is that this magical period is different for different people. It was the “Roaring Twenties” for the West in general and Britain in particular. It was the 8th century in the Middle East, and the 5th century BC in Persia, China and India.   

What do we do then, if there is no normal, we can all agree upon and no time we can go back to? Fortunately, there are some things we can do quite easily. We can go forward in time, whether we want to or not, as a matter of fact. And “normal” is what most people like to do, at least that is how it should be. Until recently, we had primitive methods for figuring out what most people like. An easily manipulated voting system, or a monarch who knew “the pulse of the people” or even a supernatural entity who would whisper, in some suitable language, into the ears of an unsuspecting bloke. We had to live with these methods for defining what normal was, since the beginning of civilization. 

As of January 2021, there were 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide - 59.5 percent of the global population. Of this total, 92.6 percent (4.32 billion) accessed the internet via mobile devices.” – the internet told me in less than a second on 13th August 2021.  


However, mobile devices are not allowed during examinations. It is not normal. It is no longer normal to desire a non-human entity that stares out of a screen and says, “ask anything”. But it is here. 

Osiris found this article interesting and I did a webinar recently. You can view it here: 


A new world is creating itself, partly real and partly virtual. Not just schools, but workspaces, jobs, banks, hospitals, supermarkets, cinema theatres, and too many things to list, are all heading into a hybrid reality.  

If we wanted to, we have the means to find out what most people like or know or believe in – in seconds. 

If we wanted to, we could go forward to normal. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Can a TV game show be useful?


TV quiz shows are popular all over the world. They are a rage on British TV for example and are broadcast 24 hours a day on all days. The act of winning substantial amounts of money by answering trivial, obscure and usually utterly useless questions from memory seems to have a mesmerizing effect on people. What if we could put this odd liking to good use?

Imagine a TV quiz show where a team of four players are asked the usual trivia questions, except that they are allowed up to 30 seconds to look for the answers on an internet search engine on a large screen visible to the audience. Correct answers accumulate 1000 pounds (or equivalent) for a session with 20 questions. So, the maximum accumulation could be 20,000 pounds! At the end of the session, a quizmaster is asked as many questions as the participants got right, with a total time limit of 30 seconds times the number of questions. For example, if the participants got 14 questions right, the quizmaster would get 7 minutes to answer another 14 questions. If she can, the participants lose all the money, if he cannot answer the stipulated number of questions in the allocated time, the participants get to share the pot and take the money home. This is modelled after a highly popular British TV show called “The Chase”.

The advantage of such a show would be that, in addition to learning the answers to trivia questions, the audience would get to see how effective searches are done. How to compute the correct search method, how to sift through the results rapidly and accurately avoiding the spam and misleading results, how to comprehend what the right search result is trying to convey and finally, how to communicate the final answer to the question from the search results.

If such a show is watched by as many and with as much attention as the mindless game shows that are so popular, we would have an effective way to improve computing, comprehension and communication skills. The three skills that people, and particularly children, need more than almost any other today.

Friday, July 30, 2021

The new PC - from three decades ago!

 While looking for something else, I found this article that was published sometime in the early 1990s in an Indian magazine. It is a SciFi story of a future woman and her new PC. The 'future' in the story is probably 2007 or so! You just might find it still relevant although I had got the timeline rather wrong. Here it is, just as I found it, with no edits: 

The New PC 


- Sugata Mitra 


The new PC came as a bit of a surprise. It was only  two years ago that I had bought my present notebook. I still remember the amount of time I spent configuring it, that summer of 2005. I didn’t really know much about Operating Systems and things like that at that time. The guys in the office helped a lot, although I am not really sure that is a nice thing. Their motivation is always a little suspect, I suppose it’s the Older Woman phenomenon. At 45, I don’t really care. I guess I am lucky the young men still offer to help! 


The December 15 R&D Virus of ’07, later called the D15, is not a nice memory for me. It must have come down the mobile link from one of the music sites while I was driving. I think I said, “Ignore” without thinking, and my Agent, Gill, must have obeyed, thinking it should do just that rather than interrupt the streaming audio. Well, serves me right, because by the time I reached the office, the D15 had infected the battery intelligence and the changed voltages had already fried parts of my RAM. The system was working with only 16 Terabytes and I kept thinking it was Gill running some background programs until the capacitors started to pop. The notebook stopped entirely within a few minutes of that. Only a few seconds before the end, Gill managed to pump out a few hundred Tbytes on to an emergency server on the Web. Gill could be pretty stupid and insensitive for a 200Mb Agent, but I loved it for those last few seconds before it died. I still remember its doggy face frozen on the screen, and its thin emergency whine as it squeezed the full power of the old 2.2 Gigahertz CPU into compressing my frequently used data files and microwaving them out through our miserable 1Tbps connection. They say programs cannot die because logic chains are immortal once they are created, so goodbye Gill, hope you’re happy wherever you are. 


The new PC arrived on Christmas Day, 2007. It didn’t cost me a penny thanks to the Virus Insurance Act of ’02, thank God. Not that it compensates for the hassle of lost data but at least you get the machine back. And viruses can be vicious these days, ever since they started to auto mutate back in the ‘99s. Anyway, one lives and learns, I said to myself as I took the new PC out and threw the displastic carton into the sunny part of the balcony so it would evaporate quickly. 


It’s only when I took the PC into the study that I realised how much computers have changed in the last two years. This PC was just a black rectangle, about twelve inches by six and maybe an inch high. It was just under a pound and I stood there holding on to it wondering how to open it or switch it on. No luck. Finally, I put it down on the table to go look for a manual in the carton. I didn’t need to because the PC started to open up! Two solar panels unfolded from the top and spread themselves out turning a bit towards the study window. As they unfolded, they revealed the familiar dark blue keyboard framed in the gunmetal rectangle that was the antenna. At the lower corners of the keyboards were the shiny silicone lenses of the video receptors blinking quickly once every second as the black vidlids slid over them to wipe off any dust. I had heard of these bionic models but never seen one. It looked out of this world. The edges of the box were beginning to show more detail now. At the back was the projector lens, a tiny square of light with a full one hundred and eighty degree tilt and swivel, now projecting a test pattern on a four foot diagonal square on the left wall, the only place in my study where there is a blank wall. The left and right edges of the PC had illuminated bars for storage space and energy. Both showed full green and I wondered how much space I had, they say some of the recent models have over 800 Terabytes. The front edge of the PC had a row of indicator lights and a set of embedded sensors I couldn’t quite recognise. The indicator lights turned red, then amber and quickly green. I straightened my hair and fidgeted a little. 


“Hello Maya”, someone said from the back and I swung around nervously. “Sorry, I’ll adjust the surround sound”, said the PC, “ the ambient noise can sometimes confuse the initial settings”. 


“Oh. Hi.” I said feeling a little foolish. After all, my old notebook used to speak too. I adjusted my sari and felt more confident. The green lights in the front of the PC changed for an instant from rectangles to hyphens and back again. Like a faint smile, I thought. 


“ Tell me your specs, what kind of agent do you use?” I asked, adding a little wistfully, “ I used to have one called Gill.” 


“ I don’t use an agent, I am one. My name is Vonn. From Von Neumann, you know. I know the Gill agents, they stopped production almost a year ago, but quite a few are around on the Web.” 


“ Well, Gill was pretty efficient,” I began spiritedly, “ and I don’t think I like those green lights in front of you” 


“ Excuse me,” said Vonn, in a quieter voice, “ your sandwich toaster says you sometimes fix yourself a sandwich around early evenings on holidays, shall I turn it on?”  


I shook my head. 


“ OK, let me tell you a bit about myself,” said Vonn. 


“ I am a Bionic2 model, released December, 2007. I use the Cognitive Windows OS from Wintel Corp. as implemented on a Shockeley 799 CPU running at 24 Gigahertz. I have 640 Terabytes of memory with a dynamic RAM allocation to suit speed requirements. I am self powered and continuously connected to the Web for data, voice and media applications. I interface with all information appliances in your house and elsewhere”…. 


“By the way,” I interrupted, “I haven’t checked my mail today”. 


“You had some, nothing very important, I think. Would you like to see it, hear it or shall I just make a summary?” 


“ Are there any interesting ads?” 


“Well, there is a 3D one on liver reconstruction, they claim the reconstructed organ has better functionality than the real one” 


“No thanks”, I winced, “ Did anyone call?” 


“Yes, Robert called while we were speaking, he said he would drop by in a short while” 


“What did you tell him?” 


“ I said it was OK, you had already agreed to see him earlier” 


I gulped, “ How did you know that?” 


“ A Gill agent from the Web returned some data saved on an emergency server” 


“ Gill?” my heart jumped a beat, “Is it still there on the Web?” 


“ I think so. It said you don’t really like Robert much but you do see him on holidays”. 


“ Yes”, I laughed, “ he is kind of OK, he built my Home Page and put in some really funny lines” 


“ By the way,” said Vonn,” I have transferred your Home Page from that public server to my local storage” 


“ Hey, just a minute, isn’t this a client connection?” 


“There are no PC clients anymore. All PC’s are servers. All two billion of them. Only information appliances are clients. Like your toaster and other stuff around the house.” 


“Hmm. That sounds a bit risky to me. Remember what happened to my last PC?” 


Vonn chuckled. “ It won’t happen again”, he said, “ I have a simulation of myself running on the emergency server network all the time. If my body is destroyed, just get another one and I’ll be back”. 


“ The doorbell saw Robert driving up”, said Vonn. 


I started to fiddle with my hair again. “Try it this way”, said Vonn. It projected an image of me on the wall and opened a window with a reconstructed image with the hair thrown a little forward over the forehead. I liked it and tried to copy it with my hands until the two images looked similar. 


Robert knocked. He never uses the doorbell but Vonn was projecting his image on the wall. I was beginning to enjoy this. The December light had faded and the room was quite dark. The front indicators on my new PC had changed from green to the soft pearl white I like so much. I leaned towards Vonn in the darkness and smiled. 


“Let there be light”, I said. 


And there was light. 



Sugata Mitra works on Cognitive User Interfaces and Adaptive Systems. He has a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics and heads NIIT’s R&D. 

The opinions expressed by Sugata are his own and do not reflect those of his organisation or of the publishers. 

He can be contacted at 



That byline and the email address are the clues that dates the article to the early 1990's.