I’ve had a passing interest in the concept of spaced repetition ever since I read the Wired article about Piotr Wozniak’s fantastic human experiment.

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.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

It was a long but thoroughly engaging piece that inspired me to try out Piotr’s software Supermemo. At that time, it never really stuck. I found the interface frustrating, and I wasn’t really interested in buying the full product. At the time, my motivation to study Chinese was on the ebb anyway.

Recently, spaced repetition has come back onto my radar, thanks to what John’s writing about his study of classical Chinese.

In fact it’s motivated me enough to not only give it a try for my own study, but I’ve decided to try to contribute to an open source spaced repetition program, Anki, over the Chinese New Year. The interface is great, it’s easy to use and I love it. I’ll definitely be writing more about it soon.

The program is fully free (gratis and libre), and I can see it as not only helping me with my studies, but with a bit of localization it can also help my students and other students as well. Maybe not being able to get a plane for a visit home wasn’t such a bad thing after all.


If anybody is interested in helping me translate the Anki interface into traditional Chinese, I’d love to have your help. I’m only a small way through and there are still about 6000 lines of messages left to go through. I’m not exactly a real translator either.