I recently discovered a profile of Piotr Wozniak and his creation, SuperMemo, written by Gary Wolf last year in Wired. SuperMemo is a database and program that, using an algorithm, provides a person with repetitive, timed review of facts and other memorized items— its computational flash cards, not unlike what we all used in grade school, and biology students continued to use in college.
“SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you’ve learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you’ve forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you’re about to forget. Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information. Imagine a pile of thousands of flash cards. Somewhere in this pile are the ones you should be practicing right now. Which are they?”
“Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person’s memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains.”
The eccentricities of Wozniak seem easy to point out. For instance, “One of his most heartfelt wishes is that the world have one language and one currency so this could all be handled more efficiently. He’s appalled that Poland is still not in the Eurozone. He’s baffled that Americans do not use the metric system. For two years he kept a diary in Esperanto.” But Wolf takes care in the article to consider how the idiosyncrasies of Wozniak the person are revealed in his program. Despite some early and sustained commercial success, SuperMemo has never changed how computer users remember things. (Indead, the current trend (e.g. Remember the Milk and other ‘Getting Things Done’ applications, too numerous to list as examples) is toward rapid capturing information and systematically storing it.) Yet, as Wolf observes, this is probably not why SuperMemo faulterd as a product:
“… Wozniak has ridden SuperMemo into uncharted regions of self-experimentation. In 1999, he started making a detailed record of his hours of sleep, and now he’s working to correlate that data with his daily performance on study repetitions. Psychologists have long believed there’s a correlation between sleep and memory, but no mathematical law has been discovered. Wozniak has also invented a way to apply his learning system to his intake of unstructured information from books and articles, winnowing written material down to the type of discrete chunks that can be memorized, and then scheduling them for efficient learning.”
“… one of Wozniak’s friends who worked as a manager at the company during its infancy, thinks that Wozniak’s focus on his own learning has tunted the development of his invention. “Piotr writes this software for himself,” says Murakowski, now a professor of electrical engineeringat the University of Delaware. “The interface is just impossible.”
There are several ancestors to SuperMemo, I’ll list the applications that are maintained and free.:
- The Mnemonsyne Project, a cross-platform research and study application.
- Genius, a memorization program for OSX
- Anki, which is an application I’ll be trying out to refresh my Spanish vocabulary and commit some math principles to memory
- spicyelephant.com/, is a web-based implementation of the concept