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Courtesy of Cell-Ed

(Courtesy of Cell-Ed)


English on the go

Mobile learning apps could help workers or immigrants hone language and literacy skills

A new category of mobile learning apps seeks to help the large segment of the American labor force that struggles with literacy skills.

More than half of the workforce reads at less than the sixth-grade level, and many are illiterate, according to Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, the founder and CEO of Cell-Ed, a mobile learning platform targeting low-skill workers.

“When you talk about adult literacy, it sounds like you’re referring to a few folks who fell through the cracks, but that’s not the case at all,” she told Fast Company. “It’s a hidden epidemic.”

Cell-Ed and another application called Learning Upgrade—which teaches English and math using songs, video games, and rewards—were among five finalists for the $7 million Adult Literacy X Prize, sponsored by the Barbara Bush Foundation.

Users of the Cell-Ed app don’t need a computer or smartphone, just a phone that can text. Once logged on, they can access learning modules on subjects that include English as a second language, reading, writing, math, and more. The short “micro-lessons” last no longer than three minutes, allowing users to fit them in to work or home schedules. Cell-Ed coaches, available around the clock via text or phone, offer additional support to learners.

Several studies have backed up Cell-Ed’s approach. A 2014 assessment by the Center for Global Development found the app improved reading levels an equivalent of two to four years in a four-month period.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” said Kyle Teague, the learning and development manager at the Four Seasons in Silicon Valley—one of six Four Seasons hotels across the nation participating in a Cell-Ed pilot program with 100 Spanish-speaking housekeepers. “It has enabled them to speak with guests comfortably,” Teague told Fast Company. “There is a change in their confidence level.”

Cell-Ed charges nonprofit and government clients an annual license fee of $50 per user. For corporate clients, the cost is less than $10 per user, per month.

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A worker using an augmented reality headset (Handout)


Headset manuals

Augmented reality boosts high-tech manufacturing

Building a spacecraft is not a job for mass production. Aerospace workers painstakingly assemble each spacecraft one at a time, traditionally following thousand-plus-page technical manuals. But Lockheed Martin—the prime contractor building NASA’s next generation Orion spacecraft—is ditching the paper manuals and equipping its technicians with augmented reality (AR) headsets.

The Microsoft Hololens headsets allow workers to view their section of the spacecraft overlaid with holographic models based on the engineering design drawings. The models display parts and labels right on top of the partially assembled spacecraft, to include detailed instructions for tasks such as torquing bolts positioned right over the relevant holes.

Technicians have embraced the new technology, but the current generation of AR headsets is still too bulky to wear for more than about three hours at a time.

“At the start of the day, I put on the device to get accustomed to what we will be doing in the morning,” spacecraft technician Decker Jory told MIT Technology Review. Jory and his team take the headsets off when they are ready to start drilling.

Lockheed expanded its use of augmented reality after tests showed that technicians needed much less time to familiarize themselves with new tasks as well as correctly execute processes such as drilling holes and twisting fasteners.

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Eric Risberg/AP

(Eric Risberg/AP)


Farm without a farmer

Startup hopes restaurants and grocers are ready for robotically grown greens

Indoor urban farming is, you could say, a growing trend. Indoor farm startups want to provide pesticide-free, locally grown vegetables directly to urban stores and restaurants that otherwise would buy produce that may have been shipped thousands of miles. And one California startup is taking indoor farming a step further: The company is offering a completely autonomous farm with no human workers.

In October, Iron Ox opened its first operational indoor robotic farm in an 8,000-square-foot hydroponic facility in San Carlos, Calif. The company hopes to grow about 26,000 heads of leafy greens each year without soil, a production rate typical of an outdoor farm five times bigger, according to MIT Technology Review.

“We designed the entire process, from the beginning, around robotics,” Iron Ox co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander told Fast Company. “It required us pretty much going back to the drawing board to see what we could do if robots were in the loop.”

At the farm, robotic arms plant the crops, add nutrients, transplant the plants to larger containers as they grow—maximizing health and yield—and according to Alexander will eventually harvest and package the greens for the market. Another mobile robot autonomously navigates the room carrying the 800-pound trays containing the crops. An artificial intelligence system nicknamed “The Brain” controls the entire operation, which currently includes some minimal human involvement still necessary until the farm is fully automated.

Alexander plans to sell initially to restaurants. “The next step,” he told Fast Company, “is to be working with chefs and say, ‘Hey, we’re your neighborhood robotic farm,’ and we want to supply probably the freshest produce they’ll ever have access to.”

Iron Ox hopes soon to begin working with grocery stores as well as restaurants, and next year plans to expand to other locations throughout the country.

One agricultural analyst suggested to Technology Review that, while the large investment needed for robotic farming might leave smaller family-owned farms behind, automation is needed across the industry to solve long-standing labor shortages.

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