A Young Lady’s Illustrated Math Tutor

Yesterday I read in the New York Times about Tabtor, a math tutoring app with an unusual pricing model: The first two weeks are free, but the app costs $50 for every month thereafter.

This steep price helps to support the app’s most distinguishing feature: Up in the Cloud, your child’s work going through these math problems is being monitored by a human tutor. Unlike a computer, this person offers notes and encouraging voice memos, assigns new worksheets, and checks in via weekly video conference calls.

To my surprise, the writer of the article, whose own kids use the app, didn’t make the obvious literary connection, which I suspect will be evident to many readers of this blog.

Tabtor is, of course, a concrete step toward perhaps the most tantalizing idea in Neal Stephenson’s prophetic 1998 science fiction novel “The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”.

A central plot point of that novel revolves around a young girl named Nell, who gets her hands on a futuristic cyber-textbook that helps her grow intellectually to the point where she eventually becomes the smartest person in the world.

The key to the Primer’s effectiveness for Nell is the fact that a human, a woman named Miranda, is up in the Cloud, acting out its simulations. Although the two never meet in person, Miranda takes a personal interest in Nell, and her nurturing presence ends up greatly amplifying the educational effectiveness of the Primer.

In a sense, this plot-line is a disquisition on the Turing test: Stephenson is clearly saying that no matter how advanced A.I. becomes at simulating human knowledge, the presence of another actual human will always make a decisive difference.

And now it seems, people are finally trying out his theory in the real world!

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