From The Frontiers Of Cognitive Science: Big Data Meets Tiny Baby

Sylvia Lehnen

Imagine video-recording just about everything that happens in your home – and then analyzing hundreds of thousands of hours to discover the secrets of how children acquire language. That’s what MIT researcher Deb Roy did, recording about a quarter million hours of video of interactions with his infant son.

Documenting the Birth of Language

Roy shares his discoveries in his TED talk “The Birth of a Word.” In this talk, we hear – compressed into 40 seconds – how over a period of 6 months the baby goes from “ga-ga” to “water.” We see a map of the words he learns in 2 years. We marvel at “space-time worms” and “wordscapes” that look like otherworldly topographical maps, visualizing the usage patterns and social environments associated with each word. We even learn about the subconscious feedback loops that change how adults talk to facilitate an infant’s learning. And we witness the moment when this baby realizes that he has just taken a big step – literally – in his development. As baby says: “Wow!”

From The Frontiers of Cognitive Science: Big Data Meets Tiny Baby

 Wordscape of the word “water” 

Mapping Social Communication

In the second part of his TED talk, Roy expands the ideas from his language experiments to how social media and big data technologies converge to change how people watch  television. Instead of being passive consumers, millions of people now give real-time feedback via tools such as Twitter, to express how they feel about what they see. As Roy puts it: “We can now see the engagement properties of content.”

Whether analyzing the chatter produced by different shows or the reactions to a particular piece of content, the implications to the future of science, commerce, and politics are stunning. And as his extreme home videos show, so are the ways in which we might be able to access and share personal memories.

From The Frontiers of Cognitive Science: Big Data Meets Tiny Baby

Social conversations exploding during President Obama’s State of the Union address

This work has led Roy to further explore the implications of big data science when applied to human communication. He founded social TV analytics company BlueFin Labs to make sense of social chatter as it relates to TV content.

As Roy says in his a recent article: “Massive new flows of data coupled with practically limitless computational power are unleashing profound transformations throughout the cognitive and social sciences. … All this I see as natural steps in our quest to become an increasingly self- aware and connected species.”


About Sylvia Lehnen

Sylvia currently works in content marketing and has a background in journalism, instructional design, product management, and product marketing for software products, with an emphasis on cloud computing. She has lived in both Europe and the United States and loves languages, travel, and design. She's also a connoisseur of fine chocolates and desperately wants a gig as a restaurant critic.