Ed Cooke talks octogenarians, Paradise Lost, why Citymapper will be the biggest company in the world and girls on bikes

Harriet Green
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"We want people to feel like they’ve got learning superpowers, that Memrise is cheerful enough that you’d go on it even if you were tired, or had just got dumped"

I consider learning and memory to be exactly the same thing.

"Think about artificial intelligence: that’s really artificial memory. It’s funny that most people privately doubt their intellect, but they’ll often volunteer that they have a bad memory, not low intelligence. It’s something to do with memory being seen as a selective mental skill, I think,” says Ed Cooke, co-founder and chief executive of Memrise, the language learning app.

If you haven’t used Memrise, you’ve probably come across someone who has. And they probably raved about it: it can make you feel like a genius in a matter of minutes. And the best thing is that you actually retain what you learn.

Founded in 2010, but with its latest language-focused iteration developed in 2014, it has over 10m users (acquired entirely organically) learning more than 100 languages. Cooke is aiming to have 100m users in the next three years. Memrise predominantly operates a freemium model, but there are users who pay, which gives them increased access.

Mobile, says Cooke, is ideal for learning: “little and often is how memory works. And learning in different contexts makes your memory more robust. Mobile learning is healthy because you don’t tie information to a particular context. It also enables you to learn when you actually want to. And like all things in life, that’s advantageous.”

In addition to being the co-founder of Memrise, the 34 year-old is also a grandmaster of memory – which means he can do presumably impossible things like memorise a random 1,000 digit number in an hour, and the order of a deck of cards in less than two minutes. “When I was 18, I wound up in hospital for three months. I was on an arthritis ward with lots of octogenarians and I found I was having the same conversations over and over, which was pretty boring.”

Productively, he got his hands on some memory technique books, and started practising for 12 hours a day. I leap in, asking if the 10,000 Hour Rule holds any truth. (Of course, faced with a world-class memory champion, I manage to forget the name of Malcolm Gladwell, who coined the idea that doing 10,000 hours of practise can make anyone world-class in a field.) “Oh, I think it’s rather less than that, actually,” says Cooke. “More like 100 hours.”

The key, he says, is to find the techniques that exploit the natural capacity of the mind – we naturally remember things that are vivid, emotional, spatial, for instance. So you want to create “a bicycle for the brain” – which is how Cooke describes Memrise’s core learning engine.

“It’s the basic idea that there are very simple principles behind gearing the mind – how long should you look at something, when to repeat it and how to test it. If you think about the design of bicycles before the right formula was hit on, there were all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. But once the current design was achieved, it’s never really changed. It can be similar for learning.”

As we talk, this isn’t Cooke’s only bicycle disclosure. “I’d like to make a film – a diamond heist inspired by 1970s policier dramas, with four girls on bikes.” Inevitably, it’s not as mad as it sounds. “I’ve got four sisters, part of it comes from that. They’re all independent and unoppressed women. But I’ve noticed not everyone else is, and the effect that can have on men, which is just as bad, really. So it’d be a homage to them, but also to the bicycle, which is the ultimate vehicle for getting from A to B in London. The whole plot would revolve around the fact that cars are a really stupid form of transport in cities, with plenty of police chases where the souped-up police car is outpaced by an 80 year-old woman on a bike.”

This idea is revealed because I ask Cooke what he’d be doing if he wasn’t running Memrise. Other plans include having a philosophical academy on a Greek island, and building a startup which sought to disrupt existing institutional structures. “We have these incredibly inflexible ways of organising people. There’s been a huge amount of innovation in tech, and virtually nothing in how best to achieve a set of goals. Businesses tend towards a size that is inherently inefficient and bureaucratic, with the distribution of outcomes logarithmic.”

Cooke has built an inadvertent reputation as a futurist, after going on a hunt for the video app Vine on Twitter two years before anyone built it. And he hasn’t stopped there. “When everyone has ubiquitous video connectivity, I think we’ll have a tool that will operate between three people, where without asking you can dial into whatever a close friend is seeing at that very moment. I also think there will be a social network for groups of three: three-way relationships are a fundamental feature of all human societies. Two-way relationships depend on their function for privacy, which makes them an uninteresting form of social network. With complete ubiquity of communication, the question becomes how you constrain it, not how you create it.”

Another prediction is that “Citymapper is going to be the biggest company in the world – more important than Uber. Uber is a narrow utility, but the scope of what Citymapper can offer people is enormous.”

Building Beyond

Pausing on the Ubers of this world, it crosses your mind that Memrise is the sort of highly innovative firm that you can imagine relocating to Silicon Valley. “We had the option to, and it is a wonderful place. But in a nutshell, everyone seems to believe they deserve the success, without a flicker of recognition for the 40 years of government-funded computer science that’s created all the fundamental technology there.”

Happily based in London, Cooke believes the key to running a good company lies in giving staff distributed autonomy. “That, and trust and clarity of direction. All the lessons that you read about running a business you don’t really believe until they happen to you – like don’t employ an arsehole.”

Currently, Memrise is on tour in the Membus (it’s a real, souped-up bus) around Europe. The resulting product is its interactive European dictionary. Here, you see a two or three second clip of a native speaker saying a word or phrase. Then you guess what they’re saying. Like everything else about the app, you find yourself going back for more.

The aim, says Cooke, is to gamify Memrise, building “a Candy Crush, but where you happen to wind up speaking fluent Korean. There are tens of millions of people addicted to asinine games. We want people to feel like they’ve got learning superpowers, that Memrise is cheerful enough that you’d go on it even if you were tired, or had just got dumped. The future for us is ensuring we can drive habitual behaviours.” And if you’re wondering how addictive Memrise can be, pop on and try it.

A future project is creating a massively multi-player online memory-palace adapted from Cooke’s favourite book, From Dawn to Decadence, by Jacques Barzun. Eventually, he plans to take Memrise “beyond language learning”, but it’s pretty obvious that, in its current form, it has plenty more miles to run.

“We’re very focused on creating the alternative learning technology. I recently spoke at a teacher conference, and out of an audience of 300, 50 were already using Memrise in their classrooms.” What about an enterprise solution? “I occasionally toy with the idea of liberating the minds of the employees of HSBC. It’s an interesting place the business may one day choose to go.”

I ask whether we’re destined to learn less – given that the internet remembers most things for us. “The biggest thing I’ve ever remembered was quite a lot of Paradise Lost, ten years ago now. And still these five-line fragments pop up the whole time as I’m randomly experiencing the world. And every time, the richness of my experience is amplified.”

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