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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