Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Neha asks:
Would you trust a machine to make decisions in your life ranging from movies you would like to watch, to deciding birthday presents, to choosing a place to work, or maybe even your future life partner?
Click here to respond!
Tell us about your online tutoring program, EachOneTeachOne.
EachOneTeachOne is based on the Facebook platform. People spend something like eight billion minutes on Facebook each day, and each day the number is increasing. Most of the time people are just browsing around, updating statuses and stuff like that.
If you are on Facebook and you add the EachOneTeachOne app, the application will send you a ping or request that such-and-such a person is online and he might need you as a tutor. So if you have time you can teach him. Basically, a Skype connection will open between you and the person and that’s how you’ll communicate. It’s on a completely ad hoc basis, and you can state your preferences about what you want to teach or learn. The system does the matching for you, and it connects the right kind of people together.
We are still working out the details on some issues like anonymity — particularly for the students, but also for the teachers. We don’t want students annoying teachers all the time if they keep pinging you. So we want to create a layer of anonymous IDs in between the student and teacher.
EachOneTeachOne is there on Facebook, but it’s not currently very active. I started it as an idea with a group of graduate students. It started off really well and people really liked it, but I could not devote a lot time to it after that. I’m already committed to my PhD program, and I want to finish that first.
It’s definitely an area with a lot of potential for education, though.
You’ve said you want to use IT and social media for social good. Has social media gone bad?
Yeah, I have really strong thoughts on that. I think Facebook is quite addictive and it’s quite a waste of time. One of my friends calls it “Fakebook.” I think people use it for personal propaganda. With Facebook we know every little thing that each person in our lives has done, and I think that affects how you make your decisions in your day-to-day life. I think you become more influenced by people, subconsciously or consciously. I believe it increases herd behavior.
EachOneTeachOne was developed to better utilize the time that you are on Facebook. EachOneTeachOne is not just on Facebook, though. Facebook is a platform on which it can be used, but EachOneTeachOne is independent.
As a PhD student, I see so many people who are already too busy, wasting time on Facebook. If you have some “free time” – whatever that means – and you are spending it on Facebook, why not use the time to help teach someone?
What does your PhD focus on?
I’m working towards my PhD in computer science in the area of learning through exploration, here at the University of Maryland. The problem I’m working on is for a situation where you a have a bunch of items and you don’t know anything about those options before the start of the experiment. How do you find the best one? For example, say you have several medicines, and you don’t know which one is the best. You have a certain number of patients or trials for each medicine. And you have to find out, in the least amount of time, which one is the best.
I have a mathematical formulation and I have a new algorithm for this kind of situation. So now I’m empirically testing the algorithm and trying to prove it’s more efficient than other algorithms in the area.
The algorithm can be applied in clinical trials, in education, or anything. It doesn’t relate directly to EachOneTeachOne, but the techniques can be used even there. If you wanted to find out which teacher was the best, or something … you can directly apply these techniques anywhere.
Tell us about the other work you’ve done at the University of Maryland.
I am part of the group called MIND Lab here at the UM. We have this whole suite of applications called “MyeVyu” applications and “V911” applications. The whole idea behind them was to improve the quality of life of the students at Maryland.
We developed several iPhone applications so you could have more information instantly about different events at school, the bus services, and what is cooking at the dining hall, etc.
V911 (short for Video-911) is a smart phone app that has an audio and video live channel. Prince George’s County area, where our school is, is kind of unsafe. A lot of thefts and armed robberies take place. And the campus is huge – there are 40,000 students here. So my professor thought that since students have all these iPhones and Androids, why not make them livestream video in emergency situations?
With the V911 app, at the touch of a button, a live audio-video connection will start from the phone to the police station. So first responders will actually know what’s going on during the emergency, even before they arrive. Maybe at a later stage your health issues and stuff like that will already be part of your profile. So in an emergency situation the first responders will immediately know any of your pre-existing conditions.
We are working with the city police on this project and it’s close to completion. We are now just looking for funding. Video-911 has gotten a lot of press coverage. Unfortunately, in a research group, there’s always the chicken-and-egg problem. You need funds to develop an idea, and to get funds you need to develop it.
What has inspired you to dedicate so much of your life to improving the world through technology?
I’m from a small family, from a small town in India called Roorkee. It’s an engineering town in northern India. In India, typically when you are born your parents decide that you are a doctor or an engineer. [Laughs] There are no other options. So that’s why I chose IT.
But why I chose IT for social good was because of my father. He has been one of the major influences of my life. He has been a wonderful person not only for us, but also for the whole society. He might forget what grade my brother and I were in, [laughs] but he would remember everything about everybody else in the community. I was really brought up by my mother because my father was so busy helping other people. He would help children get admission into school, help people find jobs, all of that. Everyone in my town knows my dad by name. We just had this mentality of working together and helping each other instilled in us, ever since we were small.
My advisor here at UM is also a big influence in my life. The classes that my advisor teaches are telecasted live in India. In India there aren’t enough teachers for all the students, so it’s really a great thing that my advisor goes to all the extra effort to help teach students there. In India, there’s always this issue of getting good teachers in the universities, because most of the highly qualified people take the higher-paying jobs in the industry.
How has the TED Fellowship impacted your life?
TED has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’m from a family strictly of bankers and engineers. So I didn’t have a very broad view of looking at things. You could call my mom a “tiger mom.” If you were an engineer or a doctor then you were good. Otherwise who cares about you? [Laughs].
So I thought, “Ok, doctors treat people, engineers make big machines. We run the world.” But then at TED I saw how other people, through art, music, media and design could influence and make such a big change in the world. That was an eye-opening moment for me.
And TED is in tune with how the world today is becoming more interdisciplinary. Even computer science has anthropology in it, has psychology in it … all the boundaries between different areas are disappearing. So it’s very important to have a conference like TED where people can come and teach each other and make connections with each other.
TEDIndia definitely influenced my thinking and perspective in a huge way, which cannot be explained — those feelings can only be lived and experienced.
You’ve said you think the burgeoning Indian population can be an asset.
Yes, we have this huge population, and they can speak English and they can work. If you train them properly, it would be a big asset, because a larger part of the developed world is becoming older. India has the most number of people who will be young.
If we train the women, say, in computers or nursing, and give them some kind of vocational training, it could be a huge boon to the whole world. I think India can be an epicenter — not just for call centers, but for many other things.
That’s another one of my dreams: to open a center for women where they can learn these vocational skills, which will not necessarily require college education. I think there’s a lot of potential in the area of training women, and empowering them to get decent jobs. It is said, “If you teach a woman, you teach a family.”
There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.
It’s a tough world, especially if you are a social entrepreneur. The key point I think is to keep going in this area. In any kind of new venture, you need a lot of patience and perseverance. In that way it’s similar to doing a PhD, or even harder. With a PhD at the end of the day you at least get a degree. But in entrepreneurship you don’t know.
But in entrepreneurship, even a loss is a positive thing on your resume. Trying is better than having not tried. I’ve worked with a start-up in the Bay area, and the general theme is that even if you tried to start a company and you fail, everyone knows that a lot of luck is involved. So even if you fail, it doesn’t matter than much. You took the initiative, you have potential. Failure is not bad, since starting a company is such a big endeavor.