The Birth of a Word: Deb Roy at TED

Deb Roy is the director of the Cognitive Machines group at the MIT Media Lab. For the first few years of his son’s life, Roy installed cameras in every room of the family home. Now he jokes that he has the “largest home video collection ever made” – roughly 90,000 hours of images and footage of the growing baby’s world. The purpose was to consider and analyze all the factors impacting his son’s first words, including the 7 million words that the boy heard from his father, mother, nanny, and other visitors to the house.

Roy’s talk made one of the biggest splashes at TED this year, not only for what he learned about early language acquisition, but also for his breathtaking data visualization maps. Even by TED standards, it’s an idea-packed 20 minutes: Impressive. And when you consider that Roy is now on sabbatical and employed by the AI company Bluefin Labs, working on, among other things, social media and market research, it all becomes more than a little bit frightening.

On a brighter note, Roy’s son turned out to be an early talker.

Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Variety, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.

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