Gary Wolf profiles SuperMemo creator in Wired

Gary Wolf wrote a terrific profile of Piotr Wozniak, creator of a memory program called SuperMemo, for Wired. I've been using SuperMemo (the Mac version, called Genius) to learn Spanish vocabulary and am really impressed with the results.
genius-memo.jpg 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?

Fortunately, human forgetting follows a pattern. We forget exponentially. A graph of our likelihood of getting the correct answer on a quiz sweeps quickly downward over time and then levels off. This pattern has long been known to cognitive psychology, but it has been difficult to put to practical use. It's too complex for us to employ with our naked brains.

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. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge – introspection, intuition, and conscious thought – but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we've read, help us track whom we've met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak's scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.



  1. Awesome, Skynet and BigBrother roled into one! I for one welcome our new computerized masters.

  2. “They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.”

    Learning vocabulary is all fine and dandy (and the deity of your choice knows I’ve now forgotten more kanji than I ever knew but I can look them up really, really fast) but what’s with the quote above? Computer-facism!
    What’s next – a console telling me my BMI and encouraging me to workout?

  3. There’s an open source project that is very similar called Mmemosyne available for Windows, MacOS and Linux. I only mention it because the SuperMemo software seems kind of dated.

  4. Oooh, thanks for the link to the Mac rendition, Mark! I’d read the article yesterday, and thought “this sounds interesting, shame it’s Win-only.”

  5. The guy who is supposed to write something like: “I for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” is late

  6. Very cool, thanks for the link. I’m going to play with it – I’m trying to learn Spanish.

  7. A. I’m learning Morse code right now, and this sort of functionality would be awesome. Another learning performance factor is how much time to spend on a learning task at each session. I keep thinking that I would like to do 30 minute sessions of Morse, but I fatigue sooner than that. Maybe the software could learn how I perform. I just might have to write an iPhone app to do this.

    B. I’m in the early stages of developing medical record software. I envision it having a great many features, too many for the beginning user. I plan for the program to monitor how users use it, and to gently make suggestions for how they can take advantage of more advanced features.

  8. There’s a really nice (free) memorization site called I don’t know if it uses any of these schmancy chrestomathic algorithms, but it’s kinna schmancy in its own right.

  9. I read the article in Wired and was intrigued. Having briefly played with the program it seems to me it could be infinitely more useful if the “questions” could be images. Memorizing the constellations for example would be considerably more useful if you could look up at the sky and actually point them out.

    Does anybody know if this kind of functionality exists in another program (or if I’m just missing something?).

  10. It is supposed to handle images according to this: “SuperMemo makes it possible to learn knowledge represented as text, pictures, sounds, video, HTML and more.” The first screenshot on the above link is of a human brain divided into regions, asking what one is called.

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