Barefoot In the head

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In 2001, I was asked to write an article about the next ten years to come. I tried, but what came out was the next 10 million years. The article was eventually published in German in a student magazine called Ultrazinnober (No.3). Its available in German from

Here is the English version. I found it fun to read after 15 years....

Eight powers of ten

-Sugata Mitra

Projection, prediction, prophesy and fantasy

There are four ways you can think about the future. In the near term, the length of which may depend on the subject you are thinking about, you could project. For example, you can project that there will be more and better cars next year. You could even project how many cars will be sold by studying the trends from the past couple of years. Projection as a method of forecasting the future is safe if you take a small enough length of time and if the trends you are forecasting are in some pattern.

In the short and medium term, the length of which will also depend on what you are forecasting, projection may not work too well and you will need to predict. Predicting is different from projecting because you will need to see farther and, therefore, will need to take into account factors that may come into play that can disturb a smooth trend.

In the long term, which may spread over decades, you would need to prophesy, because, beyond a certain point, you may not be able to extrapolate to the future. Yet prophecy need not be merely intuitive, sometimes looking back at the past can give us clues about what might happen in the future.

In the very long term, say in hundreds of millennia, even prophecy, or intuition may not help. Here you can only fantasise. Even then, your imagination, which is the main tool for fantasy, is often derived from your knowledge, experience and desire. Even fantasy must have a basis.

When I sat down to write about what might happen to computers, I decided not to restrict myself to any period. Instead, I decided to start with projection and see when I need to move on to prediction, fly into prophesy and drift into fantasy. That way, we can go on a very long journey indeed, as you will see.

To organise the times we will talk about, I took powers of ten and added them to the year two thousand. So the first period will be the year 2000 plus ten to the power of zero, which gives us AD 2001. The next period would be the year 2000 plus ten to the power of 1, which gives us AD 2010 and so on.

Salt Lake City, Calcutta, was pleasant indeed on this December morning of 2001 when I began to look forward. The journey went on until eight powers of ten….

Power of zero: AD 2001 and onwards..

The two gigahertz Intel pentium will be commonly available around the end of 2002. Intel says so and they are usually very reliable.
Windows XP requires a minimum of 128 Mb so it is reasonable to suppose that 256 Mb will be common and 512 Mb RAMs will be what everyone will like to have.
Rewritable CDs are easily available and the standard will probably change to the DVD format that is currently used for video disks. This sort of standard will increase the CD capacity to something between 4 and 16 Gb by 2003.
Windows and Linux will dominate the scene for sure. I hope Microsoft will make Windows free in this period. By the end of 2002 it will be clear which of these operating systems will dominate for the next few years. I think a Windows look-alike for Linux will probably be the winner.

Freeware and open source (where software writers give away the software for free and even tell you how to write your own) will become the new standard in most software. A new economics will have to emerge to decide how people will get paid for their labour.
The Internet
The Internet will explode with activity. A mature electronic commerce will rise from the ashes of the dot com bust and begin to take over from conventional business models. Some businesses will cease to exist as they do now. For example, the music industry will change completely, followed by the film distribution industry.

By 2003, Internet appliances will begin to become common in households. Mobile phones took over many of the functions of the PC in 2002, this was just a hint of devices to come. Machines with computers embedded in them, connected to and controlled through the Internet. For example (as a hopeful TV ad already shows), a refrigerator may “know” how much milk is in it, at what rate you consume it and, therefore, place an order over the Internet when required. It will, of course, check with your bank to see whether you have money to pay for your milk, before placing the order. Initially, it will even ask your permission before doing all this, but not for too long!

The toy industry will see the first major changes to Internet enabled toys. Teddy bears that download speech and music, cars that drive around on their own, robot toys, video telephony, games played by thousands of people all over the world, these and many more will be common.

So, what will we do with all this power? It is hard to project, but the next two years will be the beginning of a transition to a great, connected world that we can barely imagine.

Machines that think, machines that know, machines that remember and machines that are connected will be the dominating paradigm.

Power of one: AD 2010

The computer as we know it would have disappeared and become small enough to fit into anything. From watches to handbags, from bottles to toilets, everything would have embedded computers in them. Everything would connect to everything wirelessly.

Computing power would have moved on to the equivalent of terahertz and would cease to be a limiting factor for most purposes. Storage would be entirely solid state and almost infinite at the molecular or atomic levels, where individual atoms and molecules would store one of more bits. A full-length feature film, for example, would be stored in a piece of material the size of a fingernail.


Software would have changed to an art form. Each piece of software subtly different from another. Individuals will put together software on their own much as artists create paintings. The large corporations that used to create software will become manufacturers of software objects, the “paint”, the “brushes” and the “canvas” for the individual developers.

Every operating system will be different from each other, indeed every word processor will differ from each other, yet they will be able to communicate with each other and, sometimes even change themselves.

The Internet
One in every four human beings on earth would be connected. The Internet would be a melting pot of over four billion people. It will be used for everything, from religion to sex, business to government, from relationships to research, the net will rule all lives on the planet.
Living systems
The first decade of the 21st century will see massive advances in the life sciences. Genetic engineering will become the most preferred profession, finally dethroning computer science. We will begin to understand what life is and to manipulate this understanding to create organic and silicon life of our own design. The first artificial life forms, indistinguishable from nature will arrive in this decade.

Computing will be all-pervasive, to the extent that the term “computer application” will be considered archaic, like calling a bicycle a “machine application”.

Perhaps the greatest applications will be in medicine. Hearing and sight will be routinely restored by embedded systems. As will defective hearts, kidneys, lungs and livers. In the process an understanding of how silicon systems can interface with the brain will begin to form. An understanding that will change all humanity forever.

Power of two: AD 2100

To understand the year 2100, one needs only to agree that it will probably be at least as different from the year 2000 as 2000 was from 1900.

Computing systems will be developing and maintaining their own software routinely. Such adaptive and self-organising systems will tailor themselves to their owners needs, much as a cell in a body can adapt itself into the correct organ depending on where it is.

Even more importantly, computing systems will be designing and creating new computing systems, the first artificial beings to do so.
The Internet
The net would have spread across the solar system, linking planetary Internets together. People would be routinely guiding vehicles on other planets as they can control web cameras in remote locations, today. Like computers, the Internet will be a non-issue. Something that everybody will take for granted. By the dawn of the 22nd century, machines will be controlling almost all aspects of human destiny.

Life and cognition
The big difference between the year 1900 and the year 2000 is in our fundamental understanding of nature. I think the greatest and the strangest of this understanding is our knowledge of quantum mechanics. An understanding that is the basis for all electronics. The ability of an electron to be in two places at the same time, to move backwards in time, to do almost everything the 19th century called impossible.

A similar understanding will change the world in the 22nd century as quantum mechanics did a century earlier. I think this time the breakthrough will be in the cognitive sciences. We will finally begin to understand cognition. The neural connections of the human brain will be completely mapped and understood. Psychology will have achieved the status of a mathematical science; much as chemistry did two hundred years earlier and biology will in the next fifty years.


People will be doing significantly different things than the previous century. All pervasive computing would have made many professions extinct. The programmer, the engineer, the doctor, the lawyer, the businessman, would all be fond old memories. The artist, the writer, the musician will be under threat from artificial cognitive systems.

Remote presence and the storage of human personalities will be as simple as writing an autobiography or creating an organ bank is today.

Education used to fill the first 25 years of life for thousands of years. In the 22nd century, its form and content would have changed completely. People will learn continuously and automatically. Machines and new educational methods would speed up the process ten fold. Primary education will be universal, ubiquitous and automatic.

The pursuit of pleasure will be a major preoccupation.

Power of three: AD 3000

Life, cognition and consciousness
If the 2nd millennium was the millennium of science and technology, the 3rd would have been the millennium of life and mind. The 4th will be the millennium of consciousness.

As cognition becomes understood a new Physics will establish itself.  A Physics of consciousness. It will have been invented in the 21st century, but will be used only in the 4th millennium.

While machines that are alive, cognitive and conscious will be common, their creators, human beings, will find less and less use for their own bodies and brains. The brain is a network of neurons. Neurons and their connections can be completely replicated in computer memories. Brains and their conscious personalities would be routinely represented as strings of zeros and ones – binary strings. Space travel would be common and non-physical. Bits can travel easily at the speed of light. Perhaps faster. Power, money, religion and sex, the driving forces of human destiny for many millennia would be irrelevant and nearly unknown.

Becoming a binary string has other advantages as well. Immortality being one. Humanity will begin its transformation from matter and energy to time and information.

Power of four: AD 12000

Meaning and creation
Ten thousand years is a long time. Long enough for changes to be strongly discontinuous. In 12000 BC, the Vedas (early Hindu philosophical text, circa BC8000?) had not been written, the pyramids had not been built and our understanding of the universe was minimal. We barely had clothes.

In AD 12000, ten thousand years from now, our understanding of the universe is just as dramatically different. We understand the nature of the universe in terms of information. Reality is mutable. We understand, finally, the meaning of meaning itself.

We had never learnt how to create matter or energy out of nothing, because it was impossible. We learn now how to create the perceptions of matter and energy, out of nothing, with information alone. The Universe is what we perceive. We begin the creation of a new reality. A universe created by us. We exist here as binary states, expressed any way we like. As magnetic poles, as photons, as abstract mathematics even. We choose our mode of existence. We are superhuman.

We have no bodies, only consciousness and memory that we preserve in our binary state. The Earth is a distant memory of an incredibly primitive existence.

Power of five: AD 102000

Change of species
Homo Sapiens gives way to Homo Eternal. They coexist for a while as the Neandertals did with us a hundred thousand years ago.

We have no individual identities; humanity merges into a single being. A Being without form - ageless and timeless.

There is no technology, we manipulate pure information and create new realities to play with. It is a turbulent time. We question why we are the way we are. We learn to live with ourselves alone, in a last, supreme loneliness.

“There were no stars, no Earth, no time
no check, no change, no good, no crime,
but stillness….”

Byron had said, a long, long time ago.

Power of six: AD 1,002,000

Point Omega
A million years pass, like a spark from a loose connection. The collective consciousness that calls itself Homo Eternal, meets other collective consciousnesses from other times and spaces. Each time they merge to form a greater whole. We reach Tielhard de Chardin’s Point Omega.

We grow and continue to search for a Supreme Consciousness, until we realise – We are That.

Tat twam asi – words from an incredibly distant past ring out again. (“Thou art That”, quoted from the Upanishads, early Hindu texts, circa BC 8000, author(s) unknown).

Power of seven: AD 10,002,000

The being that calls itself The Creator is tormented by Its own questions. It creates universe after universe, and watches helplessly as Its creation unfolds, evolves into pure consciousness and merges into Itself.

It wonders Why.


The evening sun shines weakly through the ashok trees in Salt Lake City. I save this article as magnetic domains on a plastic disc coated with rust (ferric oxide). The screen blanks out as the article converts itself into a binary string of zeros and ones.

The year 2002 seems like a very long time ago.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

From the
Hole In The Wall
to the
School In The Cloud
The story so far....


The Hole in the Wall

Groups of children can learn to use computers and the Internet by themselves,
If they are left unsupervised

Later experiments 

Groups of children can learn almost anything using the Internet

 This kind of learning happens in unstructured, unsupervised and free environments

Why did we not have this before?

Schools of the 19th century were meant to produce soldiers, clerks and factory workers

There were no telephones, computers or the Internet

Creativity would adversely affect the smooth operation of Empires


is meant to produce these people

but we still have them!


Self Organised Learning Environments can be created inside schools

Creating a SOLE

One computer with Internet for every four children

Children make their own groups around each computer

They can talk to each other and to other groups

They can walk around

They can change groups if they like.

They research a Big Question

Create the 'Edge of Chaos' in the classroom and you will get Emergent Order

The ‘Granny Cloud’

Children react well to encouragement

Children exceed targets if encouraged

Children like to show off to a friendly adult

A New Primary Education

Convert the curriculum into questions

Preferably, questions to which no one has an answer

Change assessment from factual recall to creative expression of ideas

Look for methods of problem solving rather that the application of memorized procedures

Use SOLEs as a major pedagogic method where children find their own answers

                            SOLE+Granny Cloud+Big Questions

This can be built anywhere

It is a space, not a school

It may produce people

for offices like this....

Will this improve:

 Reading comprehension?

Critical thinking?


Self confidence?

Searching skills?

We think so, and are collecting the evidence….

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A New Literacy

“I don't need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it”.
 - Albert Einstein

These words from Einstein, written decades before the Internet was created, are prophetic. They predict an age when ‘knowing’ becomes obsolete. We live in that age.

Now, this does not mean we don't need to know things. We do all the time. It’s just that we don't need to know as much as possible in the first seventeen years of our lives, and then, remember and use this knowledge for the rest of our lives.

There was a world where we were mostly in places and situations where, if we needed to use knowledge in some form, we had to get it from our own brains. There were no other places to look in. That world does not exist anymore. When we need to know, we can know in seconds, anywhere.

We need the skill for where and how to access the knowledge that we want. Those skills are very different from how knowledge is accessed in a library, from a teacher or even on the phone. Children growing up at this time need to learn this new skill.

We know that children can learn to use the Internet on their own, if they are allowed to and encouraged to.

How would we measure if children have acquired the skills to learn things rapidly, accurately and confidently? We need a new kind of test.

It is rather pointless to measure children’s ability to learn using the Internet, by breaking up the process of knowing into small parts. For example, ‘does the child know how to use a mouse?’ is no longer a relevant question. Touch pads, touch screens, voice recognition, and a host of other interfaces still to come, makes that question obsolete. Similarly, does a child know how a computer works is an obsolete question. It doesn’t matter anymore.

We need a test that will measure whether children, either individually, or in groups, can answer questions and solve problems using the information cloud and the myriad access techniques and devices that pervade our world today. We need to measure how quickly, accurately and dependably they can acquire knowledge. We don’t need to measure how they do this, because the methods, techniques and processes of knowing are too many and change too quickly, for such measurement to be useful.

To devise such a test, we will need to design questions of different levels of complexity. They should range from questions that are purely factual to those that require critical thinking. For example, a level 1 question may be ‘What is the time in New York?’ while a higher level question might be, ‘why do things float or sink?’ .I have made a first, and rather crude attempt at making a test based on tasks. We evaluate this test by asking, ‘could they anwer?’, ‘was the answer right?’ and ‘how long did they take?’. Ritu will try to calibrate this test in the next few months.

Such a test measures searching, reading, technological literacy and analysis skills all together. We don’t have a name for this ‘all-in-one’ skill.

It is a new kind of literacy.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

They know no better

An interview of mine published recently in the Telegraph

Produced this, rather interesting, exchange of email:

From: ML
  Sent: 03 August 2013 08:54
  To: Sugata Mitra
  Subject: Your latest pronouncement
  Sir, (or is that unnecessary?)
  You are doing the young people of this country no service by your pronouncements.
  Whatever does "writing in a cryptic way " mean, and do you move in such restricted circles that only people who are like you can understand the code you are using?
  From my experience, spellcheckers and grammar corrections are frequently dependent on the writer's understanding grammar and spelling, anyway.
  I quote the experience of my brother in law, whose daughter, albeit extremely intelligent, was dyslexic.  She would look up spellings in a spellchecker, choose the wrong one and then enter it into the online dictionary.  Her father had frequently to peruse that dictionary and check the spellchecker!
  Apart from practical use, the glory of our language has to be preserved inasfar as it is possible to do so.  I do not know your age, but my husband and I have been involved in computers since they were enormous machines with a room of their owm.  We know that technology changes very rapidly, and whatever statements are made will be out of date very quickly.
  The English language is a beautiful thing when properly used.  When it is not properly used, it is sloppy, careless and often incomprehensible.  Beware of making such statements when you really do not know what you are doing.  Even though I believe that you simply want to get your name in the press, it is dangerous.
  Sincerely (and I am suncere in this)

On 3 Aug 2013, at 09:42, Sugata Mitra wrote:

  Thanks for your mail.
  Of the various responses I got to the Telegraph article, people over the age of 50 were uniformly rude, in perfect English.
  People below the age of 30 seemed happy with the article. "U R Cool'' wrote one.
  The rude ones want to whip the cool ones into submission.
  Sugata Mitra



I do not think that I was rude. To tell you that you are wrong is not rude, it is simply a statement of truth.  If you interpreted my email as rude, you were mistaken.  I simply think you were misguided.  The younger ones, of course, would agree with you: they know no better.  I well remember, when I was teaching (French, not English), that the younger members of the English department often, very often, had to ask me if their use of English was correct, as they were not sure about their own use of English.  I fear that at least two generations of pupils have been neglected.  Perhaps (and please remember, I do not know your age) you were in one of those generations.

I cannot believe that any French professor would be so, well, dismissive of the incorrect use of his or her native language.  I wonder if you suffered from dyslexia.  If so, it is not your fault and you can blame those who did not help you.
Should you ever wish me to help you, please ask.  If I have time, I could even proofread for you.  I have no wish to whip anyone into anything, nor yet to make them submissive.  You are not a professor of English usage and can, perhaps, be excused.

It is a fact, not an opinion, that many people will ignore the skills of a person, if that person's use of language is defective.  I myself, when listening to a speech or presentation, if the speaker uses language badly so that meaning is unclear, will stop listening to the gist of what is being said, and start listening for the errors.  That, no doubt,could be because my life has been spent teaching a language, were it not that my husband, who has never been an educator, is just the same. 

Finally, please remember that you have a successful career.  Your students, whether they like it or not, will be judged not only on their academic success but on their presentation.  If the choice is between two candidates of equal academic value, but one uses ungrammatical language, it might be the cause of his or her being discarded.

Yes, I am old, but I am not senile.

Good luck.  I  hope your career goes from strength to strength.


I was silent and she wrote again.

   From: ML
   Sent: 04 August 2013 08:58
   To: Sugata Mitra
   Subject: A final note
   Obviously, you think you have to have the last word.  And equally obviously, your education has had a bad effect upon you.  What a shame.  We teachers should all be sacked and children left to educate themselves.  What point is there in teaching hoi polloi to communicate effectively with the majority of other people?  Why should we learn other languages when we can communicate  by Iphone?
   And what use  is history?  It is all over and done with!
   Let us abolish geography.  We can see it all on the TV  set or whatever  follows that.
   Surely you, in your job, must realise that most technology becomes obsolete,  relatively quickly.
   However, reading and writing are lifelong skills that only let you down if either you have not learned them or you have not practiced them frequently.
   I know that I am one of the relatively few people who glory in written and spoken good language.  In fact, I am part of a group locally, to whom the local NHS sends leaflets ahead of publication, for correction and the elimination of jargon (which I detest even more than bad grammar).  Why use " going forward' instead of "in the future"? I was one of those who told the NHS that the phrase "Liverpool Death Pathway" was cruel and misleading.
   I know that you will not succeed in your crusade to have grammar eliminated from ths school curriculum.  I believe that you know that and that your aim was to make yourself better known.
   It worked but not, I believe, to your advantage in the end.
   Sorry, I cannot prolong this correspondence.  I must get back to my knitting.
  On 4 Aug 2013, at 11:31, Sugata Mitra wrote:
   Actually I quite agree with most of the things you have said.
   Its just that you didn't understand the difference between 'we don't need to teach spelling' and 'we don't need to learn spelling'. I said the former and not the latter.
   Reading comprehension is a serious problem nowadays :)
   Sugata Mitra

  From: ML
  Sent: 04 August 2013 13:49
  To: Sugata Mitra
  Subject: Re: A final note
  Indeed  I do understand the difference.  But children will not learn in the crowded classrooms of today, unless someone teaches them.
  I learned without being taught because, believe it or not, I have (or rather had) a pretty intelligent mind and a grandmother who devoted all her time to reading to me.  The result was that I astonished visitors by reading at the age of 2 and by 3, my parents had to hide their letters from me as I could read handwriting too.  I had the library tickets for the whole family and, by the age of 9, had exhausted the children's library.  I was given permission at that age to join the adult library.  So, I had  2 great advantages.
   But most children do not have a family member whose time is entirely devoted to them. They come from homes where there are no books and where both parents work.  Indeed, many parents will  have a reading age below 11 years.
  Therefore, my grammar, comprehension and spelling did not have to be taught. Would that all children were like that.  While the present situation exists, we have to teach them.
  Interestingly, when children were taught French through books, they hardly ever made spelling errors in that language.  In about 20 years I met only one pupil who misspelled in French.  it turned out that she was dyslexic.  And, in time, the pupils  also learned to speak French, too and correctly.  I was pretty fluent when I took my exams, yet we had no particular emphasis on speaking.
  Once we started teaching them through an oral method we threw the baby out with the bath water.  They made spelling errors but were no better at speaking, because they were in classes of over 30 and 3 forty minute lessons per week are not enough.  Yet, by A Level (I was  a senior A Level examiner for spoken French, so I travelled around schools and colleges) they were truly fluent.  Their written  French was another matter.  They had not really been taught that, in written work, bad grammar often causes misunderstanding.
  This really is my final missive.  My knitting is being neglected.
On 5 Aug 2013, at 15:25, Sugata Mitra wrote:

  If you knew how to search on the Internet, you would find I am trying to get children their grannies back through technology. Its called the Granny Cloud, and thousands of children in Colombia, India and other places have spent hundreds of hours with their English grannies.
  And yes, children can, and do, teach themselves spelling, grammar and general communication, using the Internet.
  Anyway, I do despise terms like 'moving forward' or 'out of the box'  and all one has to do is ask a group of children if these are good usage or not. No need to teach, be a granny.
  Lastly, I will remember your phrase 'they know no better' with horror. It is this belief with which the Victorians destroyed country after country.....but thats another story.
  Knit away.
  Sugata Mitra

Her last email to me.