Monday, June 04, 2007

Lumosity: Teaching to the Test?

I've been watching the battle over intelligence for a few decades now. From IQ to Emotional Intelligence to Multiple Intelligences, people have been shifting around the idea of what it really means to be intelligent. Political correctness has played a large part; every shift in the nebulous definition of Intelligence tends to be towards a broader meaning of the term, with fuzzier lines between smart and dumb and fewer people clearly on the dumb side of the line. One of the biggest debates has been about measuring intelligence. I've noticed that testability is its own skill; when you're basing a measure of intelligence on the results of a test, all you're really measuring is the ability to answer test questions correctly. The testability problem is also becoming an issue in schools. With finances hinging on students' test results, teachers have gratuitously been teaching the material and methodologies found on standardized tests, rather than actually educating students.

Given all that, I recently signed up for's brain-fitness program. They say their program is "scientifically demonstrated to improve your memory, attention and processing speed". The training consists of a set of games of increasing difficulty, each game geared to develop a different aspect of brain function: memory, processing speed, attention, cognitive control. They're still in beta, so it's temporarily free to sign up for the program; it's a fun set of games, and it's nice to have games which you can at least pretend are good for you. Head there now while it's still inexpensive.

The games' pages come with little notes that explain that the program has been shown in scientific studies to improve the mental function in question. I don't know that I buy this. Anything you do repeatedly, you tend to get better at. If you play enough ping-pong, you get better at ping-pong; if you play Doom3 online, you get better the more you play. So you play a game designed to improve your visual attention. After the game, you take a test designed to measure your visual attention. If the test is anything like the game, all it shows is that you've learned to play the game well. So I'm not actually expecting to get smarter via Lumosity, but I like having some quick games I can play while pretending I'm bettering myself.

(Tangent: the artificial intelligence community is fully aware of the testability problem. Alan Turing proposed a test to determine if a computer is capable of thought: the tester carries on a conversation with two parties, one a machine and one a live human. The computer passes the test if the tester can't consistently tell which party is the computer and which is human. Computer scientists have done much theorizing about the test's accuracy, and they're fully aware that a computer which passes the Turing Test isn't necessarily intelligent. That is, passing the Turing Test is only a sign of a computer's ability to pass the test.)

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