A Learning Expert Tries Betsy DeVos' Neuron-Stimulating Headset - and Is Far From Impressed

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has invested millions in a brain-training company called NeuroCore, which claims its neuro-feedback treatments can help relieve serious illnesses such as ADHD, anxiety, autism, depression, memory loss, migraines, sleeplessness and stress. Ulrich Boser, an education policy expert, writer on learning processes and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, visited a NeuroCore office as a prospective patient and wrote a long piece for the Washington Post. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld asked him what he found.

Steven Rosenfeld: Tell us what led you to visit this business where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a multimillion-dollar investor.

Ulrich Boser: I just wrote a book on the science of learning and one thing that I thought had not really been looked at enough is this idea—and it’s really in some ways almost even ancient—is that if you study one thing it will have spillover effects. For a long time people argued that if you learned Latin, for instance, you could be better at law, or if you studied chess, you’d be a better strategic thinker. All of this is a type of argument for brain training. The fundamental idea is the same, that there’s some deep muscle of the brain and you can train it. A lot of research shows that stuff doesn’t transfer from one field to another. 

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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